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The Logic of a Nuclear-Free Mideast

Interviewee: Nabil Fahmy, Ambassador in Residence, the American University in Cairo
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
May 19, 2010

Since the 1995 Nuclear Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, Egypt has led a movement to establish a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. But so far, that effort has not succeeded because of "Israeli refusal to participate" and the lack of Western pressure on Israel to do so, says Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2008 and now a top Egyptian expert on arms control. As to Iran, Fahmy says that there is opposition to further sanctions not only from Arab states that are irritated with Israel's refusal to join the NPT, but also from countries like Brazil and Turkey, which just negotiated a deal in which Iran will ship about half of its nuclear fuel to Turkey. A zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East would create "a nuclear symmetry" and create uniform obligations and verification controls, says Fahmy.

It has been more than forty years since the Nonproliferation Treaty went into effect. What is your impression now of that treaty?

The treaty was meant to prevent the emergence of new nuclear weapon states, disarm those that had these weapons, and ensure that peaceful nuclear technology was accessible to all. These are commendable goals even if we had to start with some states being nuclear armed and others not. Forty years later we have more nuclear weapon states and a larger number of nuclear warheads, continuous proliferation concerns and inaccessible peaceful nuclear technology. This is truly disappointing, and it is petty to say we expected worse. The treaty is still important. However, it is becoming stale and could become irrelevant if not nurtured with real disarmament measures and greater equity. Cooperation is required if it is to meet the challenges of our time, particularly the emergence of new nuclear states, non-state parties, and the dissemination of technology

Egypt, in particular, has been interested in widening the treaty to have a special subsection barring all nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East. Is this nuclear-free zone possible?

Egypt does not want to widen the treaty. In the context of the NPT, our focus is on nuclear weapons, and the provisions of the treaty encourage and support regional measures such as nuclear weapon-free zones. The creation of such a zone in the Middle East was adopted at the 1995 conference unanimously. So this has wide-ranging support.

[The NPT is] becoming stale and could become irrelevant if not nurtured with real disarmament measures and greater equity. Cooperation is required if it is to meet the challenges of our time, particularly the emergence of new nuclear states, non-state parties, and the dissemination of technology.

I also believe this is possible if the current conference reiterates support for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East and calls upon all Middle Eastern states to join the treaty as non-nuclear weapon states. The conference should also call for a cap on the production of fissile material for weapons purposes in the Middle East and place existing stockpiles under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The conference should also create a two-tier mechanism to prepare for and convene a conference under UN auspices to negotiate a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. A special United Nations envoy to prepare for the conference would be useful.

The problem is not modalities but Israeli refusal to participate. This will backfire on Israel because it will create an arms race.

Israel does not formally acknowledge that it has nuclear weapons, and it has never joined the NPT. India or Pakistan have also never joined. What can be done to encourage these nations to join the NPT and give up their nuclear weapons?

What is happening now is we are encouraging the Israelis to stay out of the treaty because nuclear disarmament has been so slow globally and they are being implicitly rewarded for remaining outside the treaty by removing all pressure on Israel and even providing benefits. It is time to negotiate a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons and their destruction, as former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had suggested in 1988 at the UN General Assembly, as well as a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East

The United States has been pressing for a new set of Security Council sanctions against Iran for its nuclear enrichment activities, which the United States and other nations claim is in violation of the NPT. Iran denies this. Do you think that, given the mood of the Arab states against Israel's refusal to join the NPT, any action can be taken at the NPT conference against Iran's activities?

The best way to address the concerns regarding the Israeli and Iranian nuclear programs is to create a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, because that would create a nuclear symmetry in terms of obligations and require intrusive verification measures.

Many non-Arab countries also oppose imposing further sanctions. These include Brazil and Turkey. So the issue is not only that Arabs oppose sanctions. But, yes, the Arab countries have a right to be angry, because their security concerns are only taken seriously if they coincide with that of the Western countries. The best way to address the concerns regarding the Israeli and Iranian nuclear programs--the former being much greater--is to create a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, because that would create a nuclear symmetry at least in terms of obligations and require intrusive verification measures, which would create greater confidence

Egypt, as the leader of the non-aligned bloc at the conference, has been pushing for a special conference next year to discuss implementation of the resolution calling for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Has it gotten much support for that conference?

The nonaligned group is fully supportive, and there is also an emerging positive trend in other groups. This is for convening a conference to hold serious negotiations. We do not seek a senseless face-saving formula which ends up being a futile political debate or a name-calling match.

How can there be a nuclear-free zone without Israeli participation?

If Israel prefers, it can join the NPT as a nonnuclear* weapon state first and we will negotiate the zone later.

*[Editor's Note: The previous version incorrectly quoted Fahmy as saying Israel could join as a nuclear weapon state.]

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