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.

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.

"We believe that we've taken an important step in building a long and fruitful partnership to enhance nonproliferation and energy security," says Ian Kelly, the State Department spokesman.

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.

Still others have seized on a 2004 videotape of a member of the Emirates' ruling family torturing an Afghan man – an incident that is only now reaching the courts – to claim that neither the UAE's legal system nor the rule of law there can be entrusted with the delicate issue of safeguarding a nuclear energy program.

"A country where the laws can be flouted by the rich and powerful is not a country that can safeguard sensitive US nuclear technology," says Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Mass., who had asked the Obama administration not to sign the accord and submit it to Congress.

Despite those objections, the accord seems almost certain to take effect at some point after the 90-day review period, congressional aides say, in part because the Obama administration has addressed some concerns with improvements to the text.

Under new wording, the US would be authorized to take back materials and equipment if the UAE did eventually resort to uranium enrichment or reprocessing, and the UAE has committed to abiding by so-called "additional protocols" of inspection and surveillance with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Those changes have answered some concerns about the accord but not others, proliferation experts say.

"Some of the most offensive passages were fixed [by the Obama administration] but there is still a lot of room for improvement," says Henry Sokolski, whose watchdog group, the Nuclear Proliferation Education Center, has opposed the UAE accord from the outset. The UAE process has demonstrated that congressional oversight provides much-needed scrutiny and should be enhanced, he says.

"The lesson here is that the more they [in the executive branch] listen to Congress, the better these agreements get," Mr. Sokolski says, adding that he would like to see legislation governing the nuclear agreement process changed so that Congress would actually have to vote an accord up or down, and not just have a 90-day review period where decisive opposition is unlikely.

As for the UAE accord, Sokolski says it particularly falls short considering that it is likely to serve as the "model" for "the harder cases" in the region: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Libya, and other countries the US has suggested it is ready to work with on civilian nuclear power.

Ploughshares' Mr. Cirincione says the US has elevated the UAE as a "good state" that is worthy of access to nuclear know-how, but he says the UAE can't be "awarded" in a vacuum. "You've got to look beyond the present conditions and at the regional problems and motivations."

And the top motivation for Arab states to pursue nuclear programs is the rise of Iran as a regional power, he says, not a sudden interest in addressing global warming with an energy source that doesn't emit greenhouse gases.

"What got these countries scrambling for nuclear technology was the summer of 2006, the war in Lebanon and Iran's support for Hizbullah in that conflict. It was not a sudden spike in viewings over there of "An Inconvenient Truth," says Cirincione, referring to Al Gore's video on global warming.

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