President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have belatedly concluded that their acceptance of Moscow's activation of Iran's first nuclear reactor at Bushehr four months ago, without protest or interference, was a serious strategic error.
It has turned out to be an accelerant for Iran's nuclear program to the point that Tehran was encouraged to barefacedly refuse to discuss with the world powers – if and when they meet later this month – any part of that program including uranium enrichment. Wednesday, Nov. 11, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made this clear when he declared that Iran's nuclear rights are non-negotiable. The forthcoming dialogue must be restricted to international issues and the pursuit of world peace and security, he said.
Bushehr has quickly become Moscow's showcase for selling its nuclear wares and capturing the Middle East market from the United States and France. The region's nations, for their part, are lining up for Russian reactors like the one in Iran. Amid Obama's calls to declare the Middle East a nuclear-free zone, Arab leaders see Iran pushing its nuclear program forward undisturbed with no one but Russia prepared to help them join the nuclear race.
On Tuesday, November 9, Russia and Qatar signed a memorandum of cooperation for the "peaceful use of nuclear energy." They agreed to cooperate in developing the use of nuclear energy, promoting scientific research and the construction of nuclear reactors. After the signing ceremony, Russian officials characterized the memorandum as a "roadmap for further nuclear cooperation."
Cairo counts on a leg up from Moscow to catch up with Iran
The next arrival in Moscow the following day was Egypt's Minister of Electricity and Energy Hassan Younis. He plans to tour Russian nuclear power stations under construction and inspect nuclear plant operation-and-maintenance stations for a closer look at the technology involved.
The minister also plans visits to a Russian factory turning out nuclear plant components and a nuclear field-training center.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that the Egyptian minister's visit culminates the quiet exchanges in progress for some time between Cairo and Moscow during which Russia undertook to supply Egypt's nuclear program with consultancy services and lay the groundwork for a new nuclear reactor modeled on the Iranian plant near Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. Our sources report that work has started to level the site.
Cairo's decision to shop for its first nuclear reactor in Moscow holds significance for Egyptian-US relations in three respects:
1. Cairo would never openly applaud the Islamic Republic of Iran, but privately, Egyptian officials were deeply impressed by Iran's success in getting the Bushehr reactor up in defiance of the West. They are now in a hurry to catch up without further delay and counting on the Russians to bring them there.
"In transition" – a polite term for declining US-Egyptian relations
2. The Egyptian government is no longer willing to rely on Washington for its nuclear needs. However, President Hosni Mubarak has found it politic to distance himself from nuclear decision-making, telling his associates that all responsibility for national nuclear policy reposes in the hands of his son, Gemal Mubarak.
In recent contacts with US officials, the president was able to claim he had no knowledge of, or interest in, his son's activities.
3. Relations between Washington and Cairo are in decline. Egypt's political, military and intelligence leaders fear the Obama administration will try to impede or even derail the Nov. 28 parliamentary elections and the September 2011 presidential poll on the grounds that they are not democratic and represent violations of human rights.
Our Cairo and Washington sources report they were confirmed in this apprehension at a meeting last week in Washington between a bipartisan Egyptian Working Group and White House National Security Council officials. It was not a success. On the American side, the get-together was attended by a huge battery of President Obama's leading advisers on Egypt, human rights and democracy, as well as prominent figures in US think tanks and human rights organizations.
It ended with the comment from a senior American official, who said: "Egypt is in a transitional stage right now, and so is American policy toward Egypt."