U.S., UAE Sign New Nuclear Cooperation Pact

Daniel Horner

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United States signed a new version of their nuclear cooperation agreement May 21, signaling President Barack Obama's support for a pact that boosters have portrayed as a model for the development of nuclear energy in the Middle East but that critics have said does not go far enough in that regard.

The accord, known as a 123 agreement, after the section of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act that makes such pacts a prerequisite for U.S. nuclear trade with other countries, was signed by the Bush administration just before it left office in January. (See ACT, March 2009.) President George W. Bush never sent the pact to Congress, leaving that step to his successor. Obama submitted the new agreement to Congress May 21, after it was signed by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE's ambassador to the United States.

Congress does not have to vote for the agreement to bring it into force. Under the Atomic Energy Act, an agreement such as the one with the UAE can enter into force after 90 days of so-called continuous session after the president submits it unless Congress passes legislation disapproving it. During that period, Congress can also vote to approve it with or without conditions.

During a May 21 press briefing, Department of State spokesperson Ian Kelly said the signing represents "an important step in building a long and fruitful partnership to enhance nonproliferation and energy security."

Supporters of the agreement have highlighted its provisions on uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, which are considered sensitive nuclear technologies because they can be used to produce nuclear explosive materials. The United States and other countries have for several years been arguing for a system under which only a few countries would have enrichment facilities, while other countries would be given assurances of nuclear fuel supply to encourage them to refrain from building such facilities. In his April 5 speech in Prague, Obama endorsed that approach. (See ACT, May 2009.)

Last year, the United States concluded preliminary nuclear arrangements with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in which those two states similarly agreed not to pursue sensitive nuclear technologies. (See ACT, May 2008.)

In the 123 agreement, the UAE says it will not pursue an indigenous enrichment or reprocessing program. The pact gives the United States the right to stop nuclear cooperation and require the return of materials or technology if the UAE changes its mind.

As the advocates note, that condition is unique in U.S. 123 agreements. Critics point out that the restriction does not apply to other potential suppliers, such as France.

According to congressional staffers, the most notable difference between the current version of the agreement and the previous one is a newly added Article 7. Under that article, the UAE "shall not possess sensitive nuclear facilities within its territory or otherwise engage in activities within its territory for, or relating to, the enrichment or reprocessing of material." The agreement defines a "sensitive nuclear facility" as "any facility designed or used primarily for uranium enrichment, reprocessing of nuclear fuel, heavy water production, or fabrication of nuclear fuel containing plutonium."

The agreement already contains a similar commitment, a provision in the preamble that refers to the UAE's March 2008 policy statement renouncing enrichment and reprocessing in favor of reliance on international fuel supplies. Critics in Congress and elsewhere had argued that the pledge might not be binding because it was in the preamble rather than the body of the agreement.

In his message conveying the pact to Congress, Obama said, "Article 7 will transform the UAE policy into a legally binding obligation from the UAE to the United States upon entry into force of the Agreement."

On another point of controversy, congressional critics of the agreement have said the UAE needs to tighten its export controls. In a May 21 press release, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, said the United States "missed an opportunity to leverage this agreement to convince the UAE to improve its export control regime." In particular, he cited "Iranian front companies that have used UAE territory to obtain sensitive technologies for Iran's weapons programs."

The UAE was one of the hubs used by the illicit nuclear export network of Pakistan's Abdul Qadeer Khan. Sherman and others also have expressed strong concern that the UAE has served as a transshipment point for exports such as electronic components for improvised explosive devices used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced legislation making U.S.-UAE nuclear cooperation contingent on a presidential certification that illicit exports are not taking place.