Egypt was offered nuclear weapons, material and expertise on the black market after the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to a senior Egyptian diplomat.
President Hosni Mubarak turned down the offer, but the incident raises new questions over what nuclear sales were made by the other states or groups in the chaos of the early 1990s in Russia and the former Soviet republics.
Maged Abdelaziz, the country’s ambassador to the U.N., made the revelation to America’s top negotiator on nuclear arms control, Rose Gottemoeller, in a conversation reported in a leaked U.S. cable in May last year.
The subject came up in a discussion of the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, a foreign policy priority for Cairo. The U.S. cable said: “Finally, in an apparent attempt to portray Egypt as a responsible member of the international community, Mr. Abdelaziz claimed that Egypt had been offered nuclear scientists, materials and even weapons following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Egypt had refused all such offers.” “A/S [assistant secretary of state] Gottemoeller asked him how he knew this to be true, to which Mr. Abdelaziz replied he was in Moscow at that time and had direct personal knowledge.” Mr. Abdelaziz declined to comment on the cable, and it is unclear from the text who made the offer.
However, other evidence points towards groups of former military officers and nuclear scientists suddenly facing loss of privileges and income.
Maria Rost Rublee, an expert on the history of Egyptian nuclear programme, said she was told by three well-informed sources - a former Egyptian diplomat, military officer, and nuclear scientist - that “non-state actors” from an unnamed former Soviet republic had tried to sell fissile material and technology to Egypt.
“Mubarak refused. He was very cautious, even over nuclear energy, and cancelled plans for a programme after Chernobyl,” said Rublee, the author of Nonproliferation Norms - a study of why some nations choose the path of nuclear restraint, now teaching at the University of Auckland.
She said the leaked May 2009 US cable marks the first time a Egyptian official has claimed his government was offered actual nuclear warheads and the assistance of nuclear technicians. Olli Heinonen, former head of the safeguards division at the International Atomic Energy Agency, said: “At the time of the Soviet collapse, there were lots of people with financial difficulties.
“Some guys were looking for ways of many money and set up companies, offering nuclear material, but these were individuals making the offers, not the states.” Several kilograms of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium have been seized from smugglers in the intervening years.
Meanwhile, there have been occasional accounts of former Soviet weapons scientists hawking their expertise abroad.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has been trying to find out what a Russian-Ukrainian scientist who had carried out pioneering work on the Soviet nuclear bomb at Chelyabinsk in Siberia, was doing in Iran in the mid-90s.
The scientist, now back in Moscow, is an expert in the implosion techniques necessary for rigging up a nuclear warheads.
Meanwhile al-Qaida focused far more on the Pakistan nuclear programme as a possible source for a terrorist bomb.
Amid all the uncertainty, experts argue that if a warhead had gone astray in that critical period in the early 90s, it would probably have been detonated by now. Note: Julian Borger is the Guardian’s diplomatic editor Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010