Loud Noise, Quiet Purpose

Egypt should let down the pressure against Israel to join the NPT and focus on Iran, which is approaching its goal in the nuclear sphere − a truly threatening development from Cairo’s point of view.

Last May, in the context of the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, Egypt led a particularly fierce and vocal campaign to force Israel’s hand in the nuclear realm.

Again, last week, Egypt was a principal sponsor of a resolution submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency calling on Israel to join the NPT and open its facilities to inspection. In both cases, it aggressively pushed an agenda that involved challenging the United States, which opposed efforts to single out and pressure Israel at a time when regional conditions were not yet ripe for moving in this direction.

The May offensive was able to achieve some results for Egypt − Israel’s singling out in the conference’s final document ‏(which failed to mention Iran‏), and the inclusion of a clause referring to a 2012 conference on establishing a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East. The IAEA resolution was less successful − it was voted down last Friday, albeit by a narrow margin.

What accounts for the intensity of this Egyptian campaign to confront Israel in the nuclear realm? At first glance, it’s nothing new. Cairo has been campaigning for years to pressure Israel to join the NPT and accept inspection of its nuclear facilities. While there is little to indicate that Egypt feels directly threatened by Israel’s presumed nuclear capability, or fears that Israel may try to expand its regional influence in this way, nuclear capability does provide Israel with an inherent strategic edge. It is a constant reminder to Egypt that Israel stands out in a way that cannot be easily neutralized. With its own regional leadership agenda, Egypt is not happy with this state of affairs, and has long been intent on trying to alter the situation.

Having said this, however, it is also the case that the intensity of the Egyptian campaign has fluctuated over the years. Cairo’s agenda is neither steady nor uniform. There have been periods when it has played up its concerns with Israel, while at other times it has been less active in this regard. Egypt has in the past confronted Israel in the nuclear realm for regional gains − namely, as a means of demonstrating to the other Arab states its credentials as the champion of the Arab national interest. Significantly, Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel without conditioning it on Israel joining the NPT.

So the question remains: Why is Egypt now pressing its agenda with such fervor? And even more puzzling, why is it doing so just when Iran is approaching its goal in the nuclear sphere − a truly threatening development from Cairo’s point of view? Over the past two years, the Mubarak regime has made known its concerns over Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and its meddling in Egyptian and regional affairs.

Some view the Iranian threat as the explanation for Egypt’s current campaign, the argument being that the road to dealing with Iran goes through Jerusalem. If Israel is not pressured, it will be difficult to stop Iran. The problem with this explanation is the time lines. Even if Egypt makes some headway on its Israel agenda, it will take years to fully realize it. Iran, on the other hand, is very close to its goal. In any case, it is unlikely that any conciliatory steps Israel might take would alter Iran’s drive for the bomb or reduce its hegemonic ambitions. The opposite is more likely to be true.

Does Egypt not see that its strategic interests would be better served at present by directing its energies to confronting Iran, rather than upping the pressure on Israel on something that at best would come to fruition years from now?

It could be that Egypt understands this all too well. Reports of Israeli warships and a submarine that passed through the Suez Canal in the summer of 2009 were a message to Iran, not only of possible Israeli intentions, but of Egypt’s willingness to tacitly accept them. At the time, Egyptian foreign minister Aboul Gheit was quoted as saying that Israeli passage through the canal was sanctioned by an agreement between Cairo and Jerusalem. In late May of this year, it was reported that three diesel-powered submarines capable of carrying nuclear cruise missiles were due to go to the Gulf, with the intention of one being stationed there permanently, in striking distance of Iran. No reports of negative Egyptian reactions were forthcoming.

Anti-Israel diplomacy helps convince other Arab states that Egypt is worthy of their regard, and there are internal public opinion benefits for the leadership as well. But it could be that Egypt is displaying its anti-Israel credentials loudly so it can more quietly support Israel in threatening Iran. The more noise Egypt creates, the less attention will be directed to the closer strategic understanding of late between it and Israel on the developing Iranian threat.

The bottom line is that Mubarak is most concerned with the stability of his regime and Egypt’s regional standing. Israel threatens neither, whereas Iran threatens both. Beneath the noise of the campaign against Israel, Egypt may be reflecting a different set of priorities.

Emily B. Landau is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.