Egypt was offered nuclear weapons, materials and expertise on the black market after the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to a senior Egyptian diplomat.
Egyptian 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.
Egyptian Ambassador to the UN Maged Abdelaziz made the revelation to the US’ top negotiator on nuclear arms control, Rose Gottemoeller, in a conversation reported in a leaked US 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 US cable said: “Finally, in an apparent attempt to portray Egypt as a responsible member of the international community, 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 Abdelaziz replied he was in Moscow at that time and had direct personal knowledge.”
Abdelaziz declined to comment on the cable and it is unclear from the text who made the offer.
However, other evidence points toward groups of former military officers and nuclear scientists suddenly facing loss of privileges and income.
Maria Rost Rublee, an expert on the history of Egypt’s nuclear program, 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 canceled plans for a program 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, New Zealand.
She said the leaked US cable marks the first time an 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-1990s.
The scientist, now back in Moscow, is an expert in the implosion techniques necessary for rigging up a nuclear warheads.