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U.S., UAE Sign Nuclear Cooperation Pact

Miles A. Pomper

In one of her final acts in office, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Jan. 15 signed a nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that includes a landmark nonproliferation provision. The Obama administration now must decide whether to press forward with the agreement amid concerns in Congress that the pact will provide Iran with easier access to nuclear technology.

The agreement represents the first in what is expected to be a series of U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements with Middle Eastern states. Several countries in the region have demonstrated a newfound interest in nuclear power, fueling concern that they could be developing peaceful nuclear technologies as a stepping-stone to nuclear weapons. There have also been concerns that placing nuclear materials in the volatile region would provide terrorists with easier access to dangerous nuclear materials. (See ACT, May 2008.)

The agreement is groundbreaking in several ways. With its economy demanding ever increasing amounts of energy and desalination capability, the UAE has plans to build as many as 10 nuclear reactors, making it the first Middle Eastern country with a substantial fleet of nuclear power reactors. The agreement also includes a key provision that would terminate cooperation if the UAE failed to fulfill its commitment not to engage in the sensitive nuclear technologies of uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing, a pledge it has vowed to enshrine in law. These technologies can provide fuel for nuclear reactors or fissile material for nuclear weapons.

"We are confident that the agreement highlights the transparency of the civilian nuclear energy program the UAE is embarking on and should be lauded as the gold standard of nuclear cooperation agreements," Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE's ambassador to the United States, said Dec. 15.

In a further effort to prove its nonproliferation credentials, the UAE Feb. 2 approved an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). IAEA safeguards are intended to prevent nuclear materials and technologies from being diverted from peaceful to military uses. States that approve versions of the IAEA's 1997 Model Additional Protocol agree to give agency inspectors greater authority to ensure that no undeclared nuclear activities are taking place. The IAEA Board of Governors must approve the agreements before they can enter into force.

Although the Obama administration has made no final formal policy decision on whether to move forward with the agreement, some influential players have already indicated their support.

Jon Wolfsthal, who will be advising Vice President Joe Biden on nonproliferation issues, told Bloomberg Feb. 3 that "[w]e should not only support the UAE deal, but it could be used as a model" for other countries to pursue nuclear power without raising weapons proliferation concerns.

Likewise, House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) in a Jan. 14 statement lauded the enrichment and reprocessing provision as "a significant advance for nonproliferation policy and a model for future nuclear cooperation agreements."

Berman also noted that he "and many other members of Congress place a very high priority on the international effort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability" and would be seeing how well the agreement affects that goal.

Other members of Congress have expressed similar concerns about the deal. If the Obama administration submits the agreement to Congress, lawmakers will then have 90 legislative days to approve legislation blocking the agreement, or it will move forward.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation Jan. 9 that would block the deal unless the UAE can show that it has stiffened its export control regime, cracked down on terrorist financing, and not engaged in banned trade with Iran for at least a year. Banned items include those prohibited under UN Security Council sanctions, U.S. law, and various international arms control agreements governing trade in missiles and nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional weapons and materials.

Congress has long expressed concerns that Iran has used UAE ports to evade international restrictions by transshipping goods from there. The nuclear proliferation network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan (see page 51) relied on the UAE as a key hub in assisting clandestine uranium-enrichment programs in Iran and Libya.

NOTE: The article was corrected online March 9 and 11, 2009. It originally indicated that the UAE had concluded a comprehensive safeguards agreement on Feb. 2, when such an agreement had been in effect since 2003, albeit limited by a small quantities protocol.