Developing Arab foreign policy in the wake of Iran agreement

Nabil Fahmy, Monday 17 Aug 2015

The Arab states need to deal seriously and objectively with regional reality, including the Iranian nuclear agreement, and take more political initiative

The American National Security Advisor telephoned me in 2004, while I was the Ambassador of Egypt to the US, suggesting the participation of Egypt in a summit meeting regarding setting-up a Big Middle East, including the Arab states and extending into Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the pretext that our countries are the source of terrorism that threatens the US and its allies.

He added that, putting into consideration that the traditional formula of the Middle East is Arabs, Israel and Iran and their regional problems do not conform with reality or facilitate reaching a solution of the region.

I apologised for Egypt’s non-attendance, justifying my standpoint by stating that the Middle East which we know is in its essence Arabian and that burdening us with Pakistan's and Afghanistan's problems will not lead to the region's stability and will not change it for the better.

A few weeks ago, in the spring of 2015, an Iranian official close to the decision makers in his country told me that Egypt mistakenly believes that the region's essence is Arabian. The New Middle East is totally different, he claimed, as the main identity of the citizen is no longer his point of reference. Whether Pan-Arab or national, the Arab world is divided against itself and current matters of politics, security, and the economy are not in Arab hands.

A Big Middle East in 2004 and a New Middle East in 2015 and both of them are with no Arab identity! Is that a big conspiracy or just compatible interests between non-Arab parties?!

I do not think that it is a big conspiracy. The element of secrecy is non-existent and it is not just a matter of compatible interests. There is much evidence of double standards, undeclared communications, and implicit cooperation between presumably conflicting parties. This matter does not only include the US and Iran only but also Israel, Turkey, and sometimes Arab countries.

I think that what is more important than identifying this or that is to realise that our Arab world is in danger. We should be honest with ourselves about the causes then work on adopting a different approach and finding a new path for protecting ourselves and building a better future.

One of the most important reasons for the present Arab vacuum is the stagnation of political thought. Egypt has performed a historic and immortal role in assisting several Arab countries in achieving their independence from European colonisation. They also helped establish the first regional organisation in the world, the Arab League, with six other countries and led the Arabs on the basis of Pan-Arabism. However, we, along with other Arabs, did not succeed in keeping up with international changes. We needed to move and develop Arab political concepts while relying on our main backbone of a common Pan-Arab identity and developing a cogwheel of mutual interests connected and growing with it.

After WWII, the world was divided into socialist and capitalist camps. There was a space for Non-Alignment countries, but afterwards it developed into a bi-polar world and then a one pole world. Now it has become a multi-polar world with the continuance of the American pole as the strongest and most widespread. 

As for the Arab world, it was locked in its past glories, the hazards and foreign plots, dreaming of the Egyptian-Syrian-Saudi triangle's return to its heyday without taking practical steps for developing the common Arab interests or enhancing national and regional capabilities. New generations of the Arab youth took the helm of political and economic responsibility; a generation that focuses on its national interests only or with the external world discarding the regional ones.

Thus, it follows that the Arab inter-trade does not exceed 18% of the total Arab trade with the outside world and 80% of it is confined to inter-trade between the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

The second reason for the deterioration of the Arab situation is our exaggerated dependence on others; usually foreign countries or bodies. There are many non-economic examples supporting this, such as the Egyptian-Soviet relationship in the sixties and then our relationship with America in the later decades of the past century.

The same goes for a number of Arab countries that passed through similar experiences in the Orient or the Arabian Gulf. This exaggerated reliance on others in the realm of national security naturally led to the decline of Arab efficiencies and capabilities in dealing with regional political and security issues. It is not a coincidence that political affairs and negotiations concerning the situations with Libya, Syria, Yemen, ISIL, and Arab-Israeli conflict were relegated to security bodies, whether the UN, the EU or the US.

Unfortunately, the absence of Arabs or their deliberate exclusion from events is continuing. We witnessed it in the lack of Arab parties’ participation in the international negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear programme. This was highlighted by the general and procrastinated reactions from Arabs to the parties reaching an agreement. These reactions ranged from an exaggerated alarmed stance towards the hazards of the agreement to an official traditional welcome that did not hide an underlying worry or announce the intention of studying the agreement's provisions as if it were hidden or secret. Nor did it welcome the agreement for the purpose of not irritating America. 

I previously wrote an article about the Iranian nuclear agreement in Al-Ahram before the US-Gulf Summit. Thus, I will not present its content again but it is suffice to say that the agreement was just a reciprocal deal to prolong the span of time needed for Iran to enrich radioactive nuclear material used for military purposes, if it wished to do so, and to impose restrictions on the nuclear activity and inspection measures for its facilities for 15 years. This was in return for lifting the economic, military, and political sanctions gradually, i.e. accommodating Iran economically and making it return to the international political life as a full-fledged member.

Reaching this agreement reflects an international political persuasion of Iran's own nuclear capabilities which it developed despite the sanctions imposed on it and a certainty that Iran is capable of enriching large amounts of uranium in the view of the absence of Iranian self-restraint.

This agreement also reflects an Iranian persuasion that regardless of how much its regional political weight is increasing, along with its nuclear programme and capabilities, it is in her interest to accept these restraints and regain its international stature so that it can move politically and economically in a better and more efficient way.

Through this conception, I think that the negotiating parties achieved what they pursued. The agreement technically is better than the hazards emanating from the absence of any phased steps. However, the real shortcoming in the agreement and its immense hazards take place in the absence of any intention to deal with the hazards of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East which includes Iran and goes beyond it. Efforts will be futile without dealing with the Israeli nuclear programme. There is no intention in the American side or any other foreign country to deal with this matter due to their persuasion that the Arab situation and the exaggerated reliance on the USA will not permit taking real Arab security measures and that the Arab anger and statements are just a tempest in a tea cup.

It is not a coincidence that the American Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter's first stop on his tour to reassure allies was Israel, before Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It does not include Egypt even though it's presiding over the Arab Summit throughout the year. Thus, we represent all the Arabs and the supposed cooperation between the two countries in combating terrorism in the Middle East.

What is required on the Arab level is to deal with our regional reality, including the Iranian nuclear agreement, seriously and objectively. Issuing resonant statements will not limit the hazards or preserve the interests, laxity in regaining even a part of the Arab will and action and taking concrete steps on the regional arena and what concerns the Iranian Agreement during its term of enforcement is a breach of responsibility.

I record here clearly and frankly that the Iranian people are from an ancient civilisation and Iran is a country that has a weight and influence in the region and has the right along with other countries in the region to benefit from peaceful nuclear technology according to the rules and regulations.

I also record with the same force and frankness that the Arab world has the right to secure itself from all nuclear hazards, especially that of Israel. It is natural that the Arab world worries from the Iranian nuclear and regional policies and asks for serious assurances and concrete steps for building confidence gradually, whether this was in regard to the Iranian nuclear programme or with the neighbouring countries in the Gulf or the rest of Asia.

Concerning the nuclear field, I suggest:

* The Arab countries hold their right to enrich uranium according to the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

* The Arab countries set-up with the International Atomic Energy Agency an Arab regional center for the nuclear fuel storage. There are a number of considerations that Egypt is qualified to be the head quarters for this regional center.

* The Arab states must demand a stop to the storage of fissile material and getting rid of the national stockpile of it in the region, including that of Israel.

• Exerting more pressure on the international arena to set up a nuclear disarmament zone in the Middle East so that it would start to be in effect with the termination of the Iranian Agreement's term of enforcement including, if the need arises, raising the issue in the Security Council after Egypt's induction starting next year.

If these are the suggestions concerning the Iranian Agreement, the challenges facing the Arab world are far bigger and more intertwined in order for the Arab world to regain its self-confidence and an amount of its credibility. In this context, I support the initiative, which we took in the form of a military action in Libya and also that of the Saudis' in Yemen in order to fulfill ourselves nationally and regionally and this should be followed by political steps and initiatives. For military action is just a means, not an end, and a tool in the hands of the decision maker so as to achieve a political objective.

From this perspective, the Arab countries should take the initiative now on the regional political arena whether through Egypt's presiding over the Arab League or through the North African countries regarding Libya in support of the agreement which was reached by the EU envoy and through a country member in the Gulf Cooperation Council regarding Yemen in support of the UN envoy.

It is important to develop an Arab course of action and solutions concerning Syria, the sister country, which disintegrated internally and its people are abused, with all what this implies of tragedies and hazards exceeding Syria and threatening the Arab world with disintegration from within.

I suggest that Egypt organise a number of dialogues at the highest level between a group of Arab leaders according to the issue and topic, aimed at taking specific steps and finding a better understanding among Arabs or at least to identify ways of dealing with a number of general issues even if this was done away from the media in a climate suitable for frank dialogue. At the top of these issues: finding exits for the Syrian situation, trying to stabilise the situation in Libya, finding ways to address terrorism and  extremism, limiting sectarianism, diversifying arms supply and cooperating in arms manufacture and improving relations with non-Arab countries especially Turkey and Iran, followed finally by Israel.

In the end, whether it is a conspiracy by non-Arab countries or an adjustment, the Arab countries have no alternative except the development option, self-reliance, multi-alternatives and to regain taking the political initiative.

The writer is former Egypt foreign minister.


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