Nuclear issues in the Middle East and North Africa

Nabil Fahmy, former foreign minister of Egypt and Egyptian ambassador to the United States, spoke on campus about the current state of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament in that region.

Nabil Fahmy sits in front of a sign reading Middle East Center, speaking into a microphone, as John Ghazvinian looks on, seated to Fahmy's left, the two separated by a low round side table.
Nabil Fahmy (left), former foreign minister of Egypt and former ambassador to the U.S., offers a response during a Q&A session moderated by the Middle East Center’s John Ghazvinian (right). (Image: Courtesy of Karim Sharif/Middle East Center)

Nabil Fahmy, a career diplomat whose roles have included foreign minister of Egypt and Egyptian ambassador to the United States, said he’s still hopeful peace can be achieved in the Middle East and the region can be made free of nuclear weapons—but it won’t happen anytime soon. 

Fahmy highlighted his takeaways on the current state of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament in the Middle East in a keynote speech that was part of the Middle East Center’s Nuclear Issues in the Middle East and North Africa conference, held April 27-29 on Penn’s campus. Taking a wide view of nuclear issues in the Middle East and North Africa, discussions examined nuclear energy alongside nuclear weapons and investigated the conceptual and material processes that enforce this divide.

Fahmy shared his assessments and anecdotes from his more than 45 years in diplomacy with a packed room at the Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics. 

He described the security imbalances in the Middle East between Israel and its neighboring Arab states, as well the gulf between Iran and its neighbors, as situations that cause much anxiety and concern. He also discussed the inconsistency and asymmetry in the region and his view that a nuclear weapon-free zone is key to laying the groundwork for peace.

“Whatever the motivation and the reasoning behind it, what the region does regarding weapons of mass destruction, or doesn’t do, will have a defining factor in establishing security or the lack of it in the region,” he said. “You can’t make a tactical state without it having severe consequences.”

He noted that “the basic conclusion—facts, not opinion” is that every Arab state in the Middle East is a member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and has accepted the safeguards required of them. Many are supportive of creating a nuclear-weapon-free zone. 

“It becomes complicated by Israel,” he said. “Israel has a number of reactors and a number of them are not under safeguards, and it is not a member of the NPT.”

Israel’s program is considered to be an undeclared nuclear weapons program, and he said he believes there are worrisome aspects in the logic surrounding how to deal with the Israeli program. Among them is the contention that Israel is under threat, therefore it needs the ability to determine how to respond to those threats so its program is justified. 

“This is a completely false premise. After the Egypt-Israel war, after the Israel-Jordan war, with the destruction of the Iraqi army, there is no military threat from the region that targets Israel in a serious fashion,” he said.

As for the threat of Iran, Fahmy noted how the first panel of the Middle East Center’s conference focused on the motivations of Iran, “and no one mentioned Israel. Iran has no desire to attack Israel.”

Fahmy said the main threat to Israel is not about nuclear weapons but rather the occupation of the Palestinian territories. He said he thinks Israel prefers to have an unauthorized program so they can change their use of it as the situation changes. 

The talk moved to Iran’s nuclear capacities and the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). “Even today, one of the most sensitive issues between the U.S. and its allies in the region is the Iran nuclear program and what the U.S. will and will not do there,” Fahmy said. He highlighted several issues Egypt had with the JCPOA, like the sunset clause and the issue of motivation.

“If Iran comes back into the international domain, and all of these sanctions are removed and we only dealt with the nuclear issue and not their policies generally, you’re missing the point. Because I wasn’t going to fight a nuclear war with Iran, but I have a problem with Iranian regional policy,” he said. 

Fahmy shared an anecdote describing how he personally mentioned his concern about the Iran agreement to former U.S. Secretary of State and Senator John Kerry, now U.S. special presidential envoy on climate, in 2013. Fahmy said Kerry indicated that the JCPOA was the best deal at the time and that other details could be added in the future. “But Egypt and others in the region can’t afford to wait like that,” Fahmy said. “If the deal was a step, a link to other actions in the region by Iran, it would have been much better.”

Fahmy said he was critical of the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA. “Rather than asking for more, you ended up giving Iran the status—not the money but the status—and then withdrew the basic carrot that you got in exchange,” Fahmy said. 

In Q&A moderated by Middle East Center executive director John Ghazvinian, he and Fahmy discussed how to address imbalance in the region and the reality of establishing a nuclear weapon free zone, the politicization of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and regions of the world that are “doing it right” in the nonproliferation space.

“Do I think we can achieve the zone now or achieve Middle East peace now? No. My point is we can start discussions that over time will make people who are serious about security understand the costs and benefits of whatever position they take,” Fahmy said.

Ghazvinian asked how much use dialogue would be when one country has a nuclear weapons stockpile and is not a member of the NPT. “If I don’t have the dialogue, I weaponize. If I can’t weaponize in terms of nuclear weapons, then you will see weapons of mass destruction, you will see missiles and so on,” Fahmy replied. “Now, if I could tell you I’m optimistic in the next three to five years, I’d be lying. I’m realistic. Let’s start the discussion and get international support for the discussion.”

Fahmy pointed to Argentina and Brazil as good examples of handling the nuclear issue. “There’s a lesson to be learned there and a lesson in Africa, an example of what the zone did because South Africa had the capacity,” he said. 

Ghazvinian then turned to the audience, with questions ranging from asking Fahmy’s thoughts on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet to his take on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s true motivations in Ukraine to whether former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres really did agree to sign onto the NPT in a New York City hotel meeting with Fahmy and his Egyptian colleagues but then failed to follow through. (Fahmy said it’s true, and the full story is available in his book “Egypt’s Diplomacy in War, Peace and Transition.”) 

The final question was from the Middle East Center’s faculty director, Harun Küçük, associate professor of history and sociology of science: How would a nation start a nuclear weapons program in this day and age; is it even feasible in 2023, when everyone knows everything about everyone else?

“Anything is feasible, if you had to pay the price for it,” Fahmy replied, while noting that any nation seeking nuclear weapons would likely have to hide their intent and the whole process would cost a lot more than doing it aboveboard. Those obstacles make it unlikely that a nation would start a nuclear weapons program today, he said.

“But don’t believe it’s not possible because the Pakistanis were completely broke and they were able to develop a system, and the North Koreans did it and you guys were watching them for a lifetime,” he said. 

That’s why it’s so important to be open to discussions, he said: “I think the region is changing, and it means talking to each other, trying to find reasons to work with each other rather than fight.”