US nuclear accord with a Persian Gulf state raises concerns about proliferation
Backers say the agreement with the United Arab Emirates is a model for other countries in the region. But critics worry about the UAE's ties with Iran.
The Obama administration, anxious to demonstrate America's willingness to deepen relations with reliable partners in the Muslim world before the president's much-heralded speech to that community early next month, has signed a controversial nuclear cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates.Skip to next paragraph
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The nuclear accord, negotiated by the Bush administration but left for President Obama's sign-off, is touted by the new administration – as it was by the former – as a model for future civilian nuclear cooperation with Arab countries.
With Obama set to lay out his vision for America's cooperation with Muslim countries from Cairo June 4, the US-UAE accord is also seen as a counterpoint to Iran's nuclear program and its combative relations with the international community.
In endorsing the accord, administration officials highlight the UAE's agreement to forego the production of nuclear fuel, which could eventually be used for production of a nuclear weapon – the issue at the crux of Iran's standoff with the US and other world powers.
But opponents of the accord blast it as a short-sighted plan designed to secure lucrative contracts for US corporations that build nuclear reactors, yet one which may result in a string of plants producing nuclear fuel across a very volatile region.
"The US does not have a strategy to deal with this very real issue of proliferation, all they have is a sale," says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, an organization that promotes a nuclear-weapons-free world. "We shouldn't be sprinkling the Middle East with nuclear power reactors until we figure out how to stop them from turning out nuclear bombs."
The agreement with the UAE could be worth up to $40 billion and thousands of jobs in the nuclear energy industry, according to the US Chamber of Commerce, which supported it. Administration officials say the agreement as tweaked under the Obama White House is stronger on proliferation protections and will serve as an example of secure and mutually beneficial civil nuclear cooperation.
The accord now goes to Congress, which has 90 days for review, after which a lack of congressional action would result in enactment.
Observers see little chance of meaningful opposition in Congress, even though not everyone there sees it in the same rosy terms as the administration.
Some members are questioning whether the agreement as written puts a lock on any future change of heart by the UAE to go nuclear. Others note the UAE's strong trade ties to Iran, just across the Persian Gulf, and worry that nuclear materials and know-how could leak to Tehran.
"The US missed an opportunity to leverage this agreement to convince the UAE to improve its export control regime and to reign in Iranian front companies that have used UAE territory to obtain sensitive technologies for Iran's weapons programs," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D) of Calif. in a statement following the administration's announcement Thursday it had signed the accord.