Egyptian Concerns on the P5+1/Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

Published: 28 Sep 2015

By:Nabil Fahmy

The P5+1 (permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) have framed the joint comprehensive plan of action with Iran as a necessary measure to curtail Iran’s ability to build a nuclear arsenal or quickly reach nuclear weapons breakout capacity. Arab states, all members of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), support nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. Consequently, in principle, they should have been able to whole heartedly support any technically sound plan. Yet, there is profound concern palpitating the region and for good reason.

Egypt was a signatory to the Treaty on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons the first day it was open for signature.  It however refrained from ratifying the treaty until 1981 because of its strong belief that regional neighbors should all have the same commitment; Israel had declined to join the NPT.  Even before 1981, Egypt and Iran proposed in 1974 that the Middle East be declared a nuclear weapon free zone. And after refraining from adhering to the chemical weapons prohibition agreement, Egypt in 1990 proposed the creation in the Middle East of a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical, and biological. In doing so it was driven by a strong belief in the principle of “equal security for all” and by a concern that weapons’ asymmetries will ultimately be a source of anxiety and a catalyst for an arms race in the region.

The comprehensive plan of action is far from sufficient in dealing with the Middle East’s nuclear issues. It delays, but does not close the door on, potential Iranian breakout. The joint plan completely ignores the nuclear program in Israel, the only non-NPT party in the Middle East. Equally disconcerting is that the “let’s be realistic” approach adopted in justifying the joint plan is testimony to a continuing and dangerous policy of “nuclear non-proliferation procrastination and exceptionalism” in the Middle East, which exacerbates and perpetuates security asymmetries. This procrastination in the short run may respond to some extra- regional, but not Arab, security concerns and is ultimately detrimental to all.

If fully implemented and enforced, the specific measures outlined in the plan of action—such as major reductions in the number of Iran’s centrifuges and its stockpile of nuclear materials— would substantially curtail Iran’s nuclear capacity to weaponize for the stipulated fifteen-year period. However, there are justifiable concerns about what Iran may do at the conclusion of this period, when its nuclear program is no longer bound by the terms of comprehensive joint plan of action. The joint comprehensive plan of action’s enforcement period does provide time for hoped for policy change in Iran, where changing political dynamics and cleavages have been so clearly displayed in the 2009 election protests and the differing approaches of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the incumbent Hassan Rowhani. Nonetheless, the complexities of Middle East dynamics augur against any consensus among analysts in projecting where the region or Iran will be in the future.

Consequently, there is no basis upon which to assume that the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region will have subsided at the conclusion of the joint plan with Iran. In fact, it is more likely that the asymmetries between the capacities of Arab versus non-Arab states in the region will have increased. This is a point of particular concern for Egypt. Given its historic leading role in the Arab world as well as its defense commitment to a number of Arab countries, the present asymmetries are problematic and further exacerbation could have intolerable national security results.    Israel, a non-NPT party presumed to have nuclear weapons and with confirmed nuclear technology and capacity, would remain completely beyond any regional or international nonproliferation effort. Iran, albeit an NPT party, would then once again in the future have the right to enrich and reprocess nuclear material, pursuant to the NPT itself (Article 4, Paragraph 1), thus shrinking Iranian breakout time if it were to decide to weaponize. And, these two asymmetries between capacities and obligations in the Arab world versus those of Israel and Iran generate a strong sense of insecurity in the Arab world.

A third point of concern, particularly for the majority of the Arab Gulf states, is how Iran will use the removal of sanctions, be that in terms of the influx of resources or more relaxedinternational interaction. Many Arab states wonder whether Iran will embark on an even more aggressive, assertive regional foreign policy, emboldened by its reacceptance into the international community. Iran’s evident and openly pronounced influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen is already worrisome for a number of Arab countries including Egypt.

In addition to these intra-regional concerns, the Arab states are also today questioning the resilience of U.S. policies in the Middle East, particularly regarding present and future security policies in the Arab Gulf region. Consequently, offering a U.S. nuclear umbrella or sophisticated hardware and defense systems alone in the long run will not suffice nor adequately respond to Arab anxiety. Tactical responses—such as a more assertive United States in Syria or more U.S. support in Yemen would not be commensurate with Arab concerns. Arabs accepting them as enough would be a major mistake.  More useful would be a substantive Arab regional discussion of a changing Arab region, particularly Arab Gulf, security paradigm with greater emphasis on domestic and regional components to bring in the Egyptian component. These potential scenarios and its responsibilities thereof are factored in by Egypt as it looks to and assesses the P5+1 comprehensive plan of action.

I am not suggesting that the P5+1 drop the plan of action or that Iran should be held to a higher standard than other countries. However, dealing with nuclear nonproliferation in the Middle East should not be a choice between “realism” and “nothing at all.” It requires a principled determination and the courage of conviction to deal with nuclear nonproliferation comprehensively, not as stop gap measures, applying them to all throughout the region without prejudice or exception and the maturity and wisdom to accept concrete steps in an incremental process, provided they are within a serious, transparent, and publicly announced strategy and timeframe.

I believe this can be done by engaging simultaneously on the following tracks:

1. The international community, particularly the United States, must engage Israel in a more rigorous effort to have it revisit the logic of its nuclear program. One wonders how George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn can initiate the debate about the utility of nuclear weapons for the United States, yet the issue cannot be raised with Israel.

2. Arab countries need to be more forceful in efforts to create a nuclear weapon-free zone    in the Middle East before the fifteen- year termination of the joint comprehensive plan of action with Iran. This should include a submission of a United Nations Security Council resolution reaffirming support for a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East and establishing a maximum 15 year date for its realization.  This resolution should task the United Nations to establish a small technical expert group to draw up a model agreement, and later host a regional, intergovernmental negotiating process on that basis. These efforts would provide not only for a continuous Iranian commitment in this regard, but would also include the Israeli program and resolve the problem of deepening security asymmetries. 

3.Arab countries- all members to the NPT-should preserve their right to enrich and reprocess nuclear material under International Atomic Energy Agency safe- guards, even if they do not all have the intention to exercise that right in the near future.

4. Arab countries should also agree on the establishment of a regional nuclear fuel bank under international safeguards.

The joint comprehensive plan of action with Iran has the potential to become a major diplomatic accomplishment or an historic strategic miscalculation, exacerbating an already tumultuous security paradigm. How we complement this plan of action will be the determining factor.