Fourty years after the Yom-Kippur War, one occasionally wonders: what would that war look like if Egypt had nuclear weapons?
The question grows more acute in view of the fact that certain elements in Egypt always aspired to obtain nuclear weapons, as this firstof- its-kind review reveals.
The Israeli intelligence community suspected for many years that Egypt was plotting to clandestinely develop a military nuclear potential – and for a good reason. These suspicions were well established - from the Nasser era, the German scientists who assisted Egypt develop ballistic missiles back in 1962, and until recently, during the presidencies of Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi.
The Emergence of a Dream
Egypt's nuclear aspirations were born as far back as the early 1950s, but the military orientation of those nuclear aspirations emerged in the 1960s, under the reign of Egyptian President Gamal Abd al-Nasser. Quite naturally, the issue of Israeli nuclear power had made its mark on Egypt's nuclear development efforts. Israel's first nuclear facility, the Soreq Nuclear Research Center, was established in 1958 to the west of the town of Yavne. It was built around a five megawatt research reactor, supplied by the US in the context of its "Atoms for Peace" program, and activated for the first time in 1960. However, in late 1960, the world press revealed for the first time that Israel had established another nuclear reactor near the town of Dimona, with French assistance. It was assessed that this reactor could be used in the future for the production of plutonium. The Dimona reactor became a thorn in Egyptians' side since its establishment, and they even aspired to attack it.
However, Egypt's entry into the nuclear age was not only a response to the Israeli nuclear potential, but also the result of Nasser's pan-Arab policy, which viewed Egypt as a leader of the Arab world.
Pursuant to the establishment of Egypt's Atomic Energy Establishment (AEE) in 1956, Egypt made impressive progress in the establishment of infrastructure and the development of research in the nuclear field. Among other things, as far back as the 1950s Egypt produced world-renowned nuclear scientists, who subsequently chose research institutes in the US as the place where they would be able to realize their scientific aspirations. The most prominent Egyptian scientist was Professor Muhammad al-Wakil, whose books on nuclear engineering, including textbooks, occupy pride of place in the libraries of most universities. Later on, the involvement of nuclear scientist Professor Zeinab Sabri in the Egyptian nuclear program would become noteworthy.
The nuclear effort, according to Nasser's vision, was not intended just for "peaceful purposes", but was intended to support, at the same time, a nuclear weapon development program. The nuclear activity, which was purely research-oriented initially, took place at the Inshas Nuclear Research Center, established about 40 kilometers north-west of Cairo. Additionally, it took place at several universities, notably those of Cairo and Alexandria. The heart of the Inchas Center was a small, two megawatt research reactor, provided by the USSR. Construction of this reactor had begun in 1958 and it was activated in 1961.
The information that indicates that Nasser had aspired from the outset to obtain nuclear weapons refers to the ballistic missile program that was being implemented in Egypt at the time. In July 1962, reports of the test-firing of a ballistic missile in Egypt were made public, and these missiles were even displayed at the Revolution Day Parade in Cairo later that month. According to Egypt, the missiles, designed El-Zafir, Al-Kaher and El-Ra'id, were intended to reach ranges of 370 kilometers, 600 kilometers and 1,500 kilometers, respectively – all the way to points "south of Beirut". Shortly thereafter, the fact that these missiles had been developed with the help of German scientists was publicly announced.
In retrospect, the actual effectiveness of these missiles is doubtful, but the Israeli defense establishment became alarmed in view of the development. The initial response to the activity of the German scientists was a preventive one, using the Mossad's clandestine channels to attack and threaten those scientists. This response became known as Operation Damocles. However, the arrest of two Mossad operatives in Switzerland in March 1963 led the Israeli government to go public on the matter, and consequently the German government also decided to intervene and practically put an end to the Egyptian program.
According to various news reports, in the period between 1960 and 1967, Egypt made intensive efforts to obtain "off-the-shelf" nuclear weapons or the means for the manufacture thereof. For this purpose, Egypt approached several countries: the USSR, China and India. Nasser's own announcements, in a speech he made in 1961, indicated his intention. He warned that if Israel obtained nuclear arms, "we would assure ourselves of atomic bombs at any cost."
One of the most prominent personalities within the Egyptian nuclear establishment in that period was Salah Hedayat, a former colonel in the Egyptian Army, who was closely associated with the Free Officers Movement of which Nasser was a prominent member.
This movement had deposed King Farouk in 1952. Although Hedayat's academic credentials included only a bachelor's degree in chemistry, he was appointed in 1958 as the Director General of AEE, and until 1970 he served in such offices as Minister for Scientific Research and Nasser's scientific consultant. His appointments to the various positions he filled were probably political, but there are those who claim that his appointment as Director General of AEE was the result of his unwavering support for the accelerated military orientation of the Egyptian nuclear program and his excellent connections within the Egyptian military.
As far as is known, Hedayat aspired to develop an independent nuclear fuel cycle based on a plutonium-producing reactor and a facility for extracting plutonium out of the fuel radiated at the reactor. This was intended as a response to Israel's nuclear capabilities. In this context, in 1964 Egypt received support from the USSR in the establishment of a radiochemistry division at the Inchas Nuclear Center, including "hot laboratories" for handling radiated fuel on a laboratory scale. Moreover, in late 1965, the Egyptian government issued a tender for the establishment of an electrical power nuclear reactor with a capacity of 150 megawatts, which was also intended to desalinate sea water. The site selected for the establishment of this reactor was Borg al-Arab, on the Mediterranean shore, about 45 kilometers south-west of Alexandria. Indeed, Hedayat confirmed, in a press interview in 1995 that Egypt had embarked on a military nuclear program in the early 1960s, which lasted until Nasser's death in 1970s.
In 1967, the Six-Day War broke out, and it is possible that one of its objectives, according to the plans of the Egyptian military, was to destroy the Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona. However, the defeat of the Egyptian military and the loss of the Sinai Peninsula reshuffled the cards for the Egyptians. The harsh economic conditions after the Six-Day War prevented the Egyptians from pressing on with their nuclear development momentum at this stage. In addition to the loss of proceeds from ships passing through the Suez Canal and from the oil wells of Abu-Rodes and Ras-Sudr, Egypt had to allocate massive budgets to the rehabilitation of its defeated military.
Consequently, Egypt decided to divert the contest against Israel's nuclear supremacy to diplomatic channels. One of the moves it made was joining the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, without reaffirming it. As far as Egypt was concerned, it was a ceremonial move, as its nuclear program had become stagnant anyway, owing to the absence of financial resources. Consequently, Egyptian diplomacy began operating through various channels with the purpose of compelling Israel to sign the treaty – albeit unsuccessfully.
In any case, Salah Hedayat pressed on with his nuclear programs, aspiring to develop the infrastructure for the production of fissionable materials for nuclear weapons. For this purpose, independent of Egypt's institutionalized nuclear sector operating in the context of AEE, he established the DCA (Design Consultant Association) in 1965, which was financed by the Egyptian government and employed a group of nuclear engineering specialists. The objective of this company was to help Egypt develop an independent nuclear fuel cycle. In 1970, the company presented its program for the establishment of "dual-use desalination nuclear reactor" with a capacity of 40 megawatts, near Alexandria. Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi promised financial support for the implementation of this project.
The DCA's program was backed up by Nasser, who was keenly interested in having Libya participate in it. For this reason, when in 1970 Nasser had reached an agreement with Gaddafi for the establishment of an Egyptian-Libyan federation, he appointed Hedayat as the Federation's Minister for Scientific Cooperation. However, the joint effort of the two countries failed to leave the ground, owing to the fact that Gaddafi wanted results faster than Hedayat could deliver them. For this reason, the financial support Gaddafi had promised evaporated.
** The full article is published in the 16th issue of IsraelDefense Magazine