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«Nuclear weapons will never buy you security in the region of the Middle East»

Mahmoud Karem

Former Director of Department of Disarmament and Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy of the Egyptian MFA (1992-1999), Member of the Advisory Board of the UN Secretary General for Disarmament Matters (2003-2009) Amb. Mahmoud Karem gave an exclusive interview for Yaderny Kontrol and spoke on the perspectives of the Middle East Zone free of weapons of mass destruction and the Russian role in the negotiation process.

— Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for negotiating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East?

 If you’re a Middle Eastern, then you realize the magnitude of the problem. You have to continue to be optimistic, otherwise you will lose the drive to build peace. We all need to be peacemakers, peacebuilders, and peacekeepers in our own way. The Egyptian and the Israeli peace treaty was unimaginable, no one ever thought that Sadat would go to Jerusalem, and everyone was pessimistic. He went to Jerusalem, and we now have a peace treaty and good security arrangements. We must maintain this.

— Would you suggest comprehensive negotiations or step-by-step approach?

 Look, there are very serious and painful decisions that must be taken at the start, before we agree on the format. Usually, when you start serious negotiations on the topic you agree on a mandate; and the mandate spells out, very clearly, what you are going to negotiate. If you don’t have this agreement and if you don’t have a consensus on the mandate, it’s useless to think whether we can do this or that. The main problem is Israeli nuclear weapons. We want to discuss it; they don’t want to. They are giving many alibies on how we shouldn’t discuss this issue because the region is not ready, because the Arabs are divided, etc. You have to agree on the chapeau, on the mandate, and then we can agree whether we can go in a group or another way. You must get the commitment from the Israeli to negotiate nuclear disarmament in the Middle East.

— Would you try to achieve the resumption of the 2010 mandate for the Conference, which failed to convene in 2012, or come up with a new one?

 The mandate is the mandate. The mandate was taken at a conference, and it was a consensus mandate. It is not a bad mandate; it had a role for everyone, a piece for everyone: it had a role for the Secretary-General; it had a role for the IAEA; it had a role for the OPCW; it had a role for the Special Facilitator to bring the region together; it had a commitment and a responsibility for the co-conveners; it reminded everyone on what transpired in 1995. In 1995, the indefinite extension would not have been possible without the region being selected, out of all regions of the world, and allocated a special decision by the 1995 Indefinite Extension about the Middle East; and that resolution was cosponsored by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom who are depositaries of the NPT. It is very evident, it is very clear.

— Some experts suggest a country should take the lead and try to just facilitate the discussion, but also try to negotiate using “shadow diplomacy”. What country could do that? If a country assumes such role, what would you suggest that country do first?

 Without thinking: Russia. I have reasons to say that, and I think this has already been touched officially. I don’t represent the Government, but you know I have my sources. The Russians can play this very important role. They are co-conveners and a co-sponsor of the 1995 NPT extension resolution, and the other depositary of the NPT. They are the most global actor with the United States on world politics. The US is not ready now for this issue. So Russia can play, I think, I have reasons to believe that we will be having good signals from Moscow.

— In case Russia advances towards the establishment of a Middle East free zone, should it take the track one discussions first, or try to do both track one and track two, or just start from track two because of the differences in the region?

 The Russians understand our region very well. Look at the Russian-Egyptian relations for instance. Speaking of a long history of cooperation, a history of very successful project building the “High Dam” in Egypt; building the iron and steel industry in Egypt, which is unprecedented in the whole Middle East region; and now building a nuclear power plant in Daaba. Russia understands the region very well, and they are closer to us. The change of personnel from one administration to another is not really a Russian problem. When you change administration, you end up with new people, and these people don’t know that much. Actually, you don’t have this problem in Russia. You have very serious experts, consistent and with deep knowledge of the region, and they understand that; they are accepted by all the parties. They have all the credentials of an honest broker.

— Would you name some successful models of cooperation from the past, either among experts or among governments, which would be helpful nowadays?

 What we are talking about here is more serious than a study or studies. What we are talking here is the future of the region and a very difficult issue, which is nuclear disarmament in the region. We understand the difficulties. Any government in Israel is not willing to take. The Israeli nuclear program is not a civilian program; it is a military program. I sympathize with them and I understand that no one will be able to tell the army or the military in Israel that we will denuclearize them all. The people, the public opinion of Israel also unfortunately feel secure with the possession the so-called ambiguous policy never to deny possession or saying that they won’t be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the region. As a negotiator, I understand this nuclear ambiguity policy. You always have to place yourself in the position of the other and understand what the maximum is, and what the limitations are.

Before speaking of the format on the machinery, you need to agree on the principles; and the principle is very clear: we want a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. Can we sit down and negotiate the elements of that zone? If we are willing to negotiate the elements of this zone together (we understand that we are not going to finish this in one year or two years), once you have a commitment from the Israeli government, this is going to send a very positive message to the whole country.

The Israelis always say that the Egyptians are too clever, and they will take us down on a slippery slope. I think it’s time to abandon this kind of thinking. There shouldn’t be a ready “no” for every positive idea. We have to be proactive, and we have to be action-oriented, try to think together. This is our future. This is the future of the Israeli children. They are going to rule after Netanyahu and so on. And this is the future of our children in our region as well. You have to think about the future, and you have to think that nuclear weapons will never buy you security in the region of the Middle East. Unfortunately, these weapons will always push other parties to seek their own nuclear weapons, as in the case of Iraq, as in the case of Libya and so on. This will always create the contention on why Israel is outside of the regime of the Non-proliferation Treaty and getting benefits, while we, members of the Non-proliferation Treaty, are being subjected to more standards. This kind of imbalance have to stop. This is the future of our region. Let us work together in this regard. We need to help each other.


Yaderny Kontrol, Issue #4 (498), April 2018