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Did Moscow really promise Egypt a nuclear bomb?

Egypt’s U.N. ambassador Maged Abdelaziz, speaking in a confidential arms control briefing last year with top U.S. officials, sought to burnish his country’s reputation as a responsible player on the nuclear front with an anecdote illustrating Cairo’s lack of interest in pursuing atomic weapons. According to a leaked State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Abdelaziz ...

Egypt’s U.N. ambassador Maged Abdelaziz, speaking in a confidential arms control briefing last year with top U.S. officials, sought to burnish his country’s reputation as a responsible player on the nuclear front with an anecdote illustrating Cairo’s lack of interest in pursuing atomic weapons.

According to a leaked State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Abdelaziz told Rose Gottemoeller, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance and Implementation, that Russia had offered Egypt "nuclear scientists, materials and even weapons following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Egypt had refused all such offers."

"A/S 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," the cable continued.

The claim by Abdelaziz — who was serving as a young first secretary in the Egyptian embassy in Moscow at the time — has been met with skepticism among arms control scholars and experts on the Soviet nuclear program. They acknowledge that in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s there were concerns about weak controls over nuclear materials and the risk of out-of-work nuclear scientists selling their expertise to the highest bidder, but they say that it’s now clear that nuclear warheads were always kept under strict control of the military. There is little evidence that Moscow — which had to struggle to exert control over nuclear weapons in Belarus and Ukraine — sought to export its nuclear program to Egypt or other countries.

"I know Abdelaziz well and would not discount what he said," Dr. William C. Potter, an expert on nuclear weapons and the director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said in an email exchange. "However, I am very skeptical that his post-Soviet interlocutor could have delivered what he allegedly promised, especially an intact weapon. Control over nuclear material and know-how certainly was inadequate at the time and private nuclear entrepreneurs were rampant — including the infamous CHETEK Company that sought to peddle nukes for ‘environmental’ purposes. It is unlikely, however, that a first secretary would have been on the receiving end of a legitimate offer for a nuclear weapon."

Abdelaziz declined through his spokeswoman to comment on the cable.

The eleven-page cable details Gottemoeller’s meetings with Abdelaziz and several other key diplomats in New York between May 5 and 7 earlier this year, on the sidelines of a final preparatory meeting on the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. The sessions were meant to prepare for a major review conference on the landmark 1970 nuclear treaty, which requires the world’s five original nuclear powers to disarm their atomic arsenals in an exchange for a commitment from the rest to forsake nuclear weapons.

The cable provides an inside look at how some of the world’s most important arms control negotiators have responded to a presidential administration in Washington that has placed of arms control treaties at the top of its foreign policy agenda. One foreign delegation after another applauded the American embrace of treaties limiting the use of nuclear weapons, saying they had reclaimed the moral high ground over nuclear proliferators like North Korea and Iran. "Nearly all delegations seemed to be showing some ‘restraint’ this year," Australia’s Assistant Secretary for Arms Controls and Counter proliferation John Sullivan. "He added that other delegations had commented to him that even Iran’s statements showed some constraint."

But the foreign delegations also highlighted some key challenges and frustrations, including a concern that Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons program, or the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, could undercut U.S. efforts to pursue its nuclear proliferation objectives. Gottemoeller acknowledged the need for the U.S to prod Israel into embracing international agreements that place constraints on their nuclear activities. In a discussion with the Algerian diplomat Idriss Jazairy, Gottemoeller said that negotiations on a new treaty barring the production of fissile material used in a nuclear explosive had been complicated by a lack of Israeli support. "Israel must be brought on board before any real action could take place," on such negotiations, she said. Until now, the U.S. and other governments have singled out Pakistan — which has blocked negotiations in Geneva — as the key stumbling block for agreement on a fissile material cut-off treaty, a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s non-proliferation strategy. The foreign diplomats also registered frustration with a U.S. nuclear-cooperation deal with India that many believe runs counter to Washington’s commitment to halt the spread of nuclear technology.

The Canadian diplomat, Marius Grinius told Gottemoeller that his government appreciated U.S. plans to "move quickly" toward negotiations on a fissile material cut off treaty, saying it is "time to smoke out Pakistan, Iran and Israel on their positions." Grinius also asked the American to explain how the controversial nuclear cooperation deal between the U.S. and India was promoting international nonproliferation objectives. The U.S. National Security Council specialist, Adam Scheinman, said the U.S. had decided to change the name of the arrangement to the Nuclear Suppliers Group — Indian Cooperation deal — a title suggesting the deal enjoyed the support of the group’s 46 members. "Grinius did not think this rebranding was fair, saying that most NSG members ‘gave up’ and ‘joined the bandwagon’ rather than fully supporting the nuclear agreement with India."

Tibor Toth, the executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, which is responsible for monitoring nuclear explosions, complained that his agency was facing a cash crunch and he pleaded with the American to reconsider a decision to withhold millions in funding to the organization. "The organization will face extensive financial trouble in FY2010. He said there was a $15-$20 million deficit in the regular budget, which will substantially affect the work of the agency."

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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