Ambassador Nabil Fahmy has served in Egypt's Foreign Ministry for 30 years and has focused particularly on disarmament and regional security issues. Most recently, he acted as Cairo's ambassador to Washington from October 1999 to August 2008. On July 21, Arms Control Today spoke with Ambassador Fahmy on a variety of issues, including Egypt's perspective on the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, and concerns regarding Iran's nuclear program.
ACT: We recently marked the fortieth anniversary of the signing of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT]. Many have characterized the treaty as under stress from a variety of factors. As someone who has worked for many years on arms control issues, what is your opinion of the state of the NPT, and what should be done to address the challenges it faces?
Fahmy: To say that the NPT is under stress is an understatement. If you read the preamble to the NPT, it talks about trying to achieve nuclear disarmament and ultimately working toward general and complete disarmament. Forty years later, we actually have more nuclear-weapon states than we had at the beginning, and you continue to have nonproliferation problems and compliance problems.
Over the last 18 months, we have had not only the North Korean issue, [but] people are talking about Iran and the Middle East; we still have Israel as a nonparty to the NPT with an unsafeguarded nuclear program. That does not mean that the NPT itself as originally adopted was a bad agreement, if it was implemented in the spirit in which it was approved. It was meant to be a step where the nuclear-weapon states commit to nuclear disarmament and negotiations and the non-nuclear-weapon states commit to nonacquisition as part of a process where these parallel lines ultimately reach a point of contact.
The problem with the NPT is while it was meant to be an active, even a proactive, agreement, it has become a static agreement. Any agreement that remains static and reflective of the environment of 40 years ago will be under stress. The real problem of the stress is that we have not dealt with the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation problems head-on and have preferred to push them down the road.
Nevertheless, if its parties acted in a manner that is consistent with the principles and the spirit of the treaty-and took that as the kernel of the nonproliferation regime that we are trying to establish-not as a status quo agreement, the NPT will remain relevant. If they don't, I am not sure we will be able to witness too many anniversaries again without seeing more problems.
ACT: In the 1995 NPT review conference, there was a resolution calling for the Middle East to work toward the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. This goal has been reiterated for many years, including during a Mediterranean summit just a few weeks ago. How do you view the pledge by the summit participants to work toward a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East?
Fahmy: The 1995 extension conference was important for several reasons. One, in extending something indefinitely, it brought forth a lot of the prominent issues. It brought forward also the whole issue of how we pursue nuclear disarmament or not, and that is why you saw a lot of principles and points adopted at that conference.
Among the regions that were considered to be most critical was the Middle East, and that is why the only region where the conference actually adopted a specific resolution was the Middle East. So the conference took a political statement saying the Middle East is a particular concern.
Now, since 1995, very few steps have been taken to bring that resolution to fruition. It is illogical and politically untenable for the NPT party states to adopt one regional resolution over a decade ago and to this day do nothing to implement that. Or that their cooperation with nonparty states in the region in the nuclear domain is actually larger and more extensive than with members of the NPT itself.
ACT: Besides pressure from the NPT member states on these nonparties-obviously Israel-are there other practical steps that can be taken by the countries in the region to achieve such a zone?
Fahmy: Sure, to achieve a zone agreement, it will have to entail negotiations between the parties themselves. NPT parties have an obligation to promote and pursue that. We, nevertheless, know that the negotiations will be regional. And therefore we have proposed-not only all the way back in 1974, but even in the '90s again, in the ACRS [Arms Control and Regional Security] context of the Middle East peace process-we proposed discussing how to achieve the creation of such a zone. In terms of concrete steps, I suggest that the members of the region actually negotiate all of the details and technicalities of a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, learning from different experiences of different regions and different case studies.
I would negotiate all these details irrespective of the fact that we may differ as to when it can actually come into force. And even if we differ about when it comes into force, the mere negotiation of this agreement gives a seriousness of purpose, indicates intentions, and, I think, greatly enhances the sense of security vis-à-vis the outcome.
ACT: In addition to the issue of nuclear weapons, some states of the region have been reluctant to ban chemical weapons and join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Over the last several years, a majority of the states in the Arab League have decided that they would no longer tie their accession to the CWC to Israel becoming an NPT state-party, and now these countries are party to the CWC. What is the prospect of Egypt reversing its stance as well and joining the CWC?
Fahmy: Very little, if any. Not because we are against the CWC. Quite the contrary, we were the first to make proposals to pursue the prohibition of chemical weapons. If, on the other hand, we saw some movement on the Israeli side regarding the NPT or the zonal agreements, we would review our position quite quickly. We do not have a commitment to chemical weapons. We have a commitment to equal standards for all in the Middle East, and we don't believe that this commitment has been respected by others.
ACT: Egypt is a country that has spoken out against efforts by the United States and others to limit the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. At the same time, some states in the region have agreed as part of their nuclear cooperation agreements or at least certain framework agreements with the United States to voluntarily forgo enrichment and reprocessing technologies in return for incentives, such as nuclear fuel guarantees and technical capacity building. Do you view the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies as a valid concern?
Fahmy: What we've spoken out against are any attempts to limit the right of state-parties to the NPT to the full fuel cycle. Not the motivation. If state-parties feel that their requirements are being met without pursuing the full fuel cycle, that is their right. That is not an issue for us. What we do not agree on is limiting even further the scope of the NPT. The scope of the NPT does not only regard nonproliferation and disarmament, there is also a commitment to cooperate on peaceful uses and to ensure full access to peaceful uses. There is a fundamental difference here between "Do I have the right to buy or to acquire this technology?" and "Do I decide that it's the right thing for me to do?" If I am assured assurances of supply, and I am assured that the same criteria apply to all, the capital costs may not make it logical for me to go down that line [of acquiring fuel cycle technology].
A fundamental criterion that we have applied to ourselves and insist on applying to others is that one standard applies to everyone in our region. We would like it to apply to everybody in the world, but we are pragmatic and realistic and look at our own region. If the existence of reprocessing and enrichment facilities is a danger or a problem in states-parties to the NPT who have full-scope safeguard agreements, then it is even more of a danger in states not party to the NPT who have unsafeguarded facilities. We have no ambitious program to pursue anything that increases proliferation problems around the world, but double standards create insecurity.
ACT: Leaving the issue of rights to such technologies aside, is the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies a valid concern?
Fahmy: It is a valid concern if they are unsafeguarded. The technology will spread anyway. The issue is if you have these facilities around the world, and you don't have safeguarded transparent programs, then needless to say the potential for problems increases. If, on the other hand, they're safeguarded and transparent programs, then yes, while the existence of increased number[s] may create a problem, they are less of a problem.
ACT: Would this apply to Iran? Iran is an NPT state-party, and there is certainly concern about Iran.
Fahmy: Yeah, but I chose my words very carefully. I said the probability that they would be of concern is much less. For every Iran, there are 150 other countries who are compliant, have not been violating their agreements, and don't forget, by the way, you [the United States] are the guys who gave Iran the nuclear program. So, we'll see what, exactly, the Iranian program is. But ultimately, there will be exceptional cases that will be in violation of the NPT, but the majority of states [party] to the NPT have been compliant and have transparent programs.
If you want to move the extra mile and say "even you guys need to do more," well, that is fine, provided you get others who are outside the treaty to do more. I am not against dealing with the technical realities that have led to the emergence of more problems. I am against ignoring the real problems and focusing on the tangential problems.
ACT: Given what you said earlier about rights, if there were sufficient nuclear fuel guarantees and other incentives, would Egypt consider forgoing enrichment and reprocessing for a period of time? Or for some kind of agreement, like those that the United Arab Emirates and others have signed with the United States?
Fahmy: We are not ready to talk about our rights. In other words, if you want to get into a debate about our rights to pursue any component of a peaceful nuclear program while we are fully compliant and transparent, we will oppose it. Whether we decide to pursue enrichment or not is a different issue completely. I mean, the debate about our rights, I won't get into. It's a waste of my time. We will not get into a discussion about our rights to pursue enrichment technology.
Now, whether we decide to enrich depends on what the offers are. There are two components to this. If we are looking at enrichment by way of peaceful nuclear programs, then needless to say it is a matter of assurances of sustained supply, depoliticizing the supply process, and all that. If we're looking at enrichment by way of a proliferation issue, then you bring a lot more components in, you bring in other factors, such as what are other states doing, who has it, who does not. We are a fully compliant NPT member. We have full-scope safeguards agreements, and we will continue to pursue our peaceful nuclear technology program with nonproliferation higher on our priorities. We are not belittling potential threats. How we are responding to them is where we differ. Not that we are denying that there may be a threat.
ACT: The United States has been pushing for Egypt to join the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. Why has Egypt so far declined to join?
Fahmy: It has not dealt with non-states-parties enough. We will continue to listen to the proponents of the partnership and make our decisions down the line.
ACT: How would you have them deal with non-states-parties? It is more about the partnership among the countries rather than the NPT as a whole.
Fahmy: It does not deal with our problems. We will continue to listen to the proponents of the initiative and take our decisions down the line. We have not rejected the initiative. We just have not agreed to it yet, or at least agreed to participate in it.
ACT: One of the key challenges regarding the nuclear fuel cycle is the concern about Iran's nuclear activities. What is your opinion about the recent proposals that have been offered by Iran and by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the P5+1) in order to resolve the issue?
Fahmy: It is clear that, at a certain point in time, Iran was not fully compliant with its safeguards commitments to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. That is registered, and there is no question about that. Secondly, it is also clear that it took them a very long time to start responding to the IAEA's questions and concerns, and that raised suspicions as to their intentions and motivations behind them. Because of those two points, serious concerns were raised about Iran's intentions and its nuclear program. Now, our position has been [that] we are concerned about the emergence of any proliferation programs in the Middle East, and therefore we are concerned about the Iranian one.
Given the fact that Iran is an NPT member, it is obliged, legally, to accept the parameters of the NPT and the constraints of the NPT to its program, but going beyond that is something it may or may not do unilaterally and voluntarily. It would be very useful if Iran could take confidence-building measures to respond to the concerns and suspicions raised by its tardiness in responding to the IAEA and accept to put a cap or a limitation on its enrichment process in exchange for assurances of supply. That should be the first step.
I would add, however, that the issue of proliferation, if you look at the history of the Middle East since the late 1960s, if not, even going before our 1974 proposal, if you do not deal with the core issues and establish a zone free of nuclear weapons throughout the Middle East, you will have the emergence of these problems, and they will be repeated again at a more dangerous level. So I would like to see Iran respond positively to the IAEA. I would applaud an agreement they could possibly reach with the P5+1. But ultimately, once that occurs, you will not put this issue to rest unless you establish a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
ACT: If the situation with Iran continued in the same vein that it is now and ultimately Iran develops what is seen at least by some as a latent nuclear weapons capability in the form of an industrial-scale enrichment facility, what do you see is a likely response in the region and by Egypt in particular?
Fahmy: I have very often heard the question, "Well, if they go nuclear, will you go nuclear?" I find the question rather silly, one, because it is so obvious, and two, because it is so simplistic. Any country in the world, the United States included, has an obligation to defend its national security. So if it feels threatened, it is legally obliged to pursue measures to ensure its national security. Now, that is the first point. Of course, we will react. Any country in the world would react, and they should react. But I also find the question simplistic because it immediately implies that, "Well if they do this, then we're going to pursue a nuclear weapons program." Pursuing a nuclear weapons program is not that simple. You do not decide, "Well ok, you did it, so I'm going to turn mine on." Secondly, it is not the only option. You can pursue your national security by taking measures politically, to deal with this problem. You can pursue your national security concerns by balancing with other weapons systems. And you can pursue your national security concerns by limiting your commitments to agreements, as well as dealing with the states involved by trying to get them to redress their actions. Finally, of course, you can pursue your national security concerns by trying to have a symmetrical response. So it would have very serious ramifications on security in the region, negative ones, yes, of course, because it creates more insecurity.
Look at the region over the last 20 to 25 years. There is an Israeli program that is unsafeguarded, and you have seen an arms race throughout the Middle East. You have had the tensions between Iraq and Iran, and you saw their weapons systems increase. At a certain point in time, Iraq was in violation of its NPT agreements. Now you have a proliferation concern raised about Iran, and people are talking about how do you ensure security by getting engaged in agreements with larger countries and alliances, and so on and so forth. So there will be a response. But the knee-jerk reaction is, "Well, if they do it, would you go nuclear?" I find this rather simplistic.
ACT: There has been some talk among some countries that security guarantees should be more formal, that a guarantee should be extended by the United States and other powers to countries in the region as a way of protecting against the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Fahmy: That is a very valid point. Again when the NPT was adopted, there was a serious effort to have negative security assurances given to the states-parties that were non-nuclear and legalizing them by adopting them in the Security Council in a codified format. Now, they were adopted or accepted as a concept, but they have not been codified legally. You can also look at- and I am not a proponent of this-but you can also look at positive assurances.
ACT: But you are not a proponent of that for Egypt?
Fahmy: I think what you should do at this point is, at the very least, codify the negative assurances and make them consistent with each other. They are not all exactly the same. But again, it is not necessarily only negative assurances that we've been dealing with traditionally. Others have talked about entering into alliances. There are many different formats for dealing with the emergence of further nuclear-weapon states in the region. They're all worse than establishing a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Because they all are based on a more aggressive military posture rather than dealing with the core of the issue.
ACT: Egypt has said it wants to develop a nuclear energy program as many other countries in the region are. Some have suggested that some kind of agreement, like there is between India and Pakistan not to attack each other's civilian nuclear facilities, might make sense in the Middle East. Is that something that you think or Egypt thinks would make sense as the region is developing this kind of nuclear power?
Fahmy: Interesting question. Possibly. It is important that you do not limit it to peaceful nuclear reactors by establishing an exclusion clause for nonpeaceful facilities. I can see some constructive attributes to it, but I also can see some concerns in what you do by default, if you want. But it is an interesting thing to look at.
ACT: You've been serving as ambassador in Washington for quite some time, and much of that time has been while the Bush administration has been in office. We are going to see a new administration next year. How do you think the next U.S. administration can best address some of the issues we addressed today, particularly as they relate to the Middle East?
Fahmy: To deal with arms control and disarmament issues generally, but particularly regarding weapons of mass destruction, meaning nuclear, chemical, [and] biological [weapons], and their means of delivery, you need to have international momentum and a regional focus. If you were to argue that the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain-and then we'll just leave aside for a second India, Pakistan, and possibly Israel-these guys were increasing their procurement of weapons of mass destruction, which they're not, but if they were to do that, it would be very difficult to convince states in particular regions to join a nonproliferation initiative or to apply restrictions to themselves, or to motivate them. Why aren't you limiting your access voluntarily so you don't create a potential problem in the future? On the other hand, if you see a disarmament process reducing warheads and missiles and, if you want, detargeting, and you have a strong disarmament momentum internationally, then there is much more credibility to proposals that "you on a regional level need to take certain steps, do not make this problem worse by creating a problem here, and we will catch up with you."
I think that if you are looking at nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, the first thing is the nuclear-weapon states have to lead in making this issue a prominent issue for them. Secondly, if you are talking about our region in the Middle East, you have to look [at] the security concerns in the Middle East itself. You cannot come and say, "What we did in Latin America is what applies to you." It may or may not apply. The security concerns will involve the hard security concerns regarding armaments and the soft ones regarding the political tensions that exist.
I would greatly encourage the next American president to take arms control or disarmament, which I prefer to use, [and] to make that a priority issue for the U.S. government and allow the United States to lead the way on this because it would have a trickle-down effect, that this is very useful in our region. And then you can look at different security paradigms applicable to a new world at the point. And I would love to see him embrace the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East as a short-term objective.
ACT: Thank you.
For a complete transcript of the interview, please visit www.armscontrol.org.
1. At the time the NPT opened for signature in 1968, five states (China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States) were known to possess nuclear weapons and were recognized by the treaty as nuclear-weapon states. Three additional states (India, North Korea, and Pakistan) have carried out nuclear weapons tests since that time. Israel is also widely believed to possess an arsenal of nuclear weapons. However, South Africa gave up its small nuclear arsenal and acceded to the NPT in 1991. In 1992, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons they inherited following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
3. The leaders of 43 countries in Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa participated in the first Mediterranean summit on July 13, 2008. A declaration adopted by the 43 leaders called for the creation of "a verifiable Middle East Zone free of weapons of mass destruction."
4. The Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) process was a working group of the Arab-Israeli peace process established during the 1991 Madrid peace conference. It was intended to foster regional confidence-building measures that would eventually lead to formal arms control agreements. However, due to continuing disagreements over the purpose of the process and the subject of the discussions, the dialogue collapsed in 1995.
6. Safeguards agreements are concluded between states and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the purpose of ensuring that nuclear technology is only used for nonmilitary purposes. NPT members are required to conclude safeguards with the agency.
7. Iran initiated its civilian nuclear efforts under the U.S. Atoms for Peace program during the 1950s in which it received nuclear technology assistance from Washington, including the Tehran Nuclear Research Reactor. During the 1970s, the United States held discussions with Iran regarding the provision of uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technology, but those plans never came to fruition. In 1975, Iran contracted with a German firm to construct its first nuclear power reactor at Bushehr, but this project was abandoned following the 1979 Iranian revolution. By the mid-1980s, Iran turned to different suppliers for its nuclear technology, including the black market.
8. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is a U.S.-led initiative intended to develop new nuclear energy technologies and nuclear fuel arrangements in order to address the anticipated growth in the use of nuclear energy. Egypt is an observer to the 21-member group.
9. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), along with Germany, have been engaged in a diplomatic process with Iran since 2006 to try to resolve the nuclear issue. In June, the six countries provided Iran with a revised version of a 2006 proposal offering incentives in return for Iran halting its sensitive nuclear activities.
10. A negative security assurance is a declaration by a nuclear-weapon state not to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear-weapon state. A positive security assurance is a pledge to aid a non-nuclear-weapon state if it is the victim of a nuclear attack. The United States has pledged not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), except if attacked by a state associated or allied with a nuclear-armed state. At the same time, successive U.S. administrations have maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity by refusing to rule out nuclear weapons use in response to biological or chemical weapons attacks. In 1995, UN Security Council Resolution 984 acknowledged negative security pledges by the five NPT nuclear-weapon states. At the 1995 NPT review and extension conference, these negative security assurances were incorporated in its final document's "Principles and Objectives for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament," which was seen as vital to securing indefinite extension of the NPT.