The Bush administration is quietly advancing a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), raising concerns in Congress and among nonproliferation experts about the deal's repercussions in a volatile region.
The deal to provide the small but strategically located country with the means to generate electricity through nuclear technology could be signed by President Bush before he leaves office, thus making the accord – similar to the much higherprofile nuclear pact the administration reached with India – part of his legacy.
But that would leave the incoming Obama administration with the task of taking the agreement to Congress, where objections over the UAE's close trade relations with Iran – and over the Emirates' history of serving as a transshipment point for sensitive materials – are already rising.
A more recent wrinkle in the brewing controversy around the agreement is the revelation by the foundation of former president Bill Clinton that the ruling Zayed family of the UAE was one of about a dozen governments among the Clinton Foundation's hundreds of thousands of donors.
With Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton picked by President-elect Obama for secretary of State, some observers are citing the UAE agreement as an example of the kinds of conflicts Mrs. Clinton will face as she seeks to further national interests in a world where her husband has extensive personal and business relations.
"Some Republicans for sure will want to seize on anything they can to make life rough for the new secretary of State, and this is exactly the kind of connection involving the former president and his foreign ties that will not go unnoticed," says Michael Hudson, director of Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
"It would be a complication," he adds, "But it also seems implausible that because Bill has got quite a lot of money from the Zayed family and others in the Gulf, that's going to alter judgments that will be made in the government on the grounds of national security and other interests."
Indeed, it is the potential for harming US national security that congressional critics are citing to oppose the accord. And they are ringing the alarm bells the loudest over the UAE's close trade relations with Iran – and evidence that technology and parts used against US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan follow a path back to Iran that involves transshipment through the UAE.
"Any [nuclear cooperation] agreement between the United States and the UAE should not be submitted to Congress until, at a minimum, the UAE has addressed the critical issue of transshipments and diversion of sensitive technologies to Iran," says Rep. Brad Sherman (D) of Calif., who chairs the House foreign affairs subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation, and trade.
Citing evidence that American-made electronics equipment following this path has been used to make some of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) targeting US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Sherman says the deal should not even be considered "until the UAE government has cracked down on Iranian procurement networks."
The UAE is a crucial trading partner for Iran, with less than 100 miles separating the two and the Emirates' port of Dubai just across the Persian Gulf from Iran. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the trade relationship between the United Arab Emirates and Iran.]
The Bush administration only reviewed the provisions of the accord with key congressional committees in a hastily called briefing last month. The plan had been for the two countries to sign the accord when Abu Dhabi's crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, met with Mr. Bush at Camp David in November. But since then the UAE government has backed off from signing the deal as it gauges congressional and Obama administration reaction.
Since the congressional briefing, one member of Congress has introduced legislation requiring certification that the UAE had taken concrete steps to close off the flow of sensitive materials and financing to Iran before Congress could approve it.
Noting the Bush administration is touting the agreement as a model for future nuclear pacts with other interested Middle Eastern countries, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says the reasons for getting the UAE agreement right are all the more compelling.
"We've been told by the State Department that the UAE has already reformed and put in all kinds of oversights and controls, but we'd like to see a track record before even thinking about a nuclear cooperation deal with them," says a Republican congressional aide involved in the issue who could only discuss it on condition of anonymity.
The Bush administration, which has been in initial discussions on nuclear cooperation with other countries in the region including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Jordan, argues the UAE deal would serve as a model since it includes tight controls on the use and disposal of nuclear fuel and stipulates intrusive international inspections of facilities. But the region's volatility and Iran's growing influence dictate a more cautious approach, the congressional aide says.
"Nuclearizing the Persian Gulf is not something we should be rushing into," he says.
Georgetown's Mr. Hudson says that as worrisome as prospects for a nuclearized Gulf may seem, the incoming Obama administration might also consider how a tightly controlled nuclear power deal with the UAE, exchanging nuclear energy know-how for strict international oversight, could serve as an example to Iran.
Right now, the Iranian government has adopted a very nationalist and uncompromising stance over its nuclear program, he notes, but a more moderate government resulting from elections next June could see things differently.
"In a way the [UAE] agreement presents itself as an attractive alternative path for nuclear development plans," Hudson says. "The Iranians could look over and see that the US and international agencies are OK with this technology coming to the Gulf, as long as it's under the right controls. It could offer a way to get beyond how this has become a core national issue for them."
But others say that before promoting an agreement that, once signed by Bush could not be renegotiated, the US should press the UAE for a tougher stance toward its powerful neighbor.
"We need to remember that everything the Iranian regime needs to hold on to power goes through the UAE," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. "We shouldn't just give up the opportunity to put the squeeze on Iran and to make some headway on a nuclear problem in the region that is everyone's concern."