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Helping the UAE Go Nuclear: A Safe Gamble


04-09-09, 03:17 PM

  : 1

Helping the UAE Go Nuclear: A Safe Gamble


Helping the UAE Go Nuclear: A Safe Gamble

Taqrir Washington
Christopher Gooch

The United Arab Emirates, a country with vast oil and natural gas reserves, has recently decided it wants to diversify and invest in nuclear energy, and the United States wants to make that goal possible. Not only is the adoption of a nuclear cooperation agreement with the UAE an opportunity to create jobs for Americansif they receive the contracts to build and operate nuclear power plantsbut it will also reinforce the important strategic relationship that exists between the two countries and promote the development of peaceful nuclear energy programs under international standards as an alternative to illegal proliferation of nuclear weapons.


Before the United States can legally transfer civilian nuclear technology and supplies to a foreign state, however, it must reach a nuclear cooperation agreement with that state. As presented in section 123 of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, the state receiving nuclear technology from the United States must address several security concerns. For example, the receiving state must guarantee that it is committed to using the technology solely for non-military purposes; must provide substantial security to prevent the transfer of nuclear technology to unauthorized persons, groups, or states; and must not reprocess, enrich, or alter any nuclear material. The 123 Agreement itself does not transfer nuclear technology or supplies. Rather, it provides the legal framework for the U.S. companies to bid on nuclear development projects in the foreign state negotiating the contract. Any proposed sale of nuclear goods must go through an additional, individual review process prior to their export.

President Obama recently submitted his formal request for such an agreement with the United Arab Emirates, and congress is in the process of reviewing the particulars. Though the agreement meets all of the requirements of section 123, several fears linger in the minds of the members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Iran and the UAE

First, since the years of the Cold War, in which the United States and the Soviet Union competed unabashedly to build nuclear weapons stockpiles, Americans have been concerned about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Basic probability has told them that as more countries get the bomb, the greater the likelihood of nuclear war. In the modern era, it is not only states, but also terrorist organizations, that are seeking the bomb, and the U.S. works tirelessly to avoid that.

Because of the UAEs history of friendliness with Iran and its past complicity and/or negligence in terrorist groups activities, many wonder if the UAE is the appropriate country with which to negotiate this unprecedented nuclear cooperation agreement. As far as Iran is concerned, the UAE has maintained a strategic economic relationship with the international outcast. While Iran has been hit with sanction after sanction enacted by a handful of United Nations Security Council resolutions in recent years, the UAE has served as an external hub for products and funds bound for Iran, helping Iran to further develop its uranium enrichment program. The Emirati president Sheikh Khalifa bin-Zayed an-Nahyan highlighted the strength of the Iran-UAE relationship even more conspicuously when he declared that Irans nuclear program is peaceful, contrary to the belief of the many of the international community.


With regard to terrorism, the UAE has an equally poor track record. A number of financial institutions within its borders have taken advantage of the absence of effective money-laundering laws and become a valuable resource for al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. These institutions, and a number of Emirati citizens, have viewed this not as a facilitation of terrorist activity but rather as a mutual business opportunity. In addition, the infamous Abdul Qadeer Khan networkwhich clandestinely spread nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, and North Koreaused materials shipped through Dubai. Until recently, all three of these states were listed by the U.S. Department of State as state sponsors of terrorism.

Acknowledging these concerns, Ellen Tauscher, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, insists that not only are suitable export controls and intensive inspections measures included in the agreement, but the UAE also has a stronger record of counterterrorist cooperation and nonproliferation in recent years. The UAE is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Terrorism, participates in the U.S. led Proliferation Security Initiative, has tighter export controls, and actively combats money-laundering and terrorist financing.

Conversely, several members of congress assert that two years of cooperation is hardly enough to trust the UAE with nuclear technology. Therefore, any cooperation agreement must contain more rigorous and effective control mechanisms. Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, in particular, has introduced House Resolution 364 to assuage the fears. It requires President Obama to confirm the UAEs full compliance with international sanctions against Iran, its application of all U.S. laws regarding trade with Iran, and its crackdown on terrorist financing within its borders.

Template for the Future

Even if the UAE intends to uphold the terms of the agreement and is ******* with a peaceful civilian nuclear program, however, there is still a major benefit to putting these rigid controls in place. This agreementwhich is just one step on the UAEs path to become the first Arab state with nuclear powerwill likely serve as a template for future agreements with other Middle Eastern countries that seek to follow in the UAEs footsteps. As countries like Jordan and Egypt begin to assert their right to civilian nuclear energy as signatories to the NPT Treaty and negotiate similar agreements with the U.S., it will be more difficult to deny them. The U.S. will appreciate having a suitable precedent which minimizes the risk of nuclear proliferation.

The American Workforce

The second concern over the proposed agreement is whether it even benefits American workers. France, a pioneer in civilian nuclear energy, has already negotiated a similar nuclear cooperation agreement with the UAE, and several other countries are in the process of doing the same. Therefore, even if Congress consents to this 123 Agreement, there is no guarantee that American companies will be contracted to construct or operate the nuclear facilities. In fact, it is most likely they will lose any bidding war, at least initially, to French companies that have more extensive experience in civilian nuclear energyover 75% of Frances energy comes from nuclear power. Moreover, Americans in particular see considerable risk in developing nuclear energy. Unlike the French, though, the U.S. omitted insurance provisions in its nuclear cooperation agreement with the UAE. Whereas French companies would be protected in the event of an unfortunate nuclear accident, American companies would be forced to reach a legal settlement and independently compensate those affected. As long as the risk outweighs the potential gains, American companies will hesitate before moving into the Gulf, rendering any nuclear cooperation agreement fruitless.

Under Secretary Tauscher met these challenges with a weak riposte. U.S. technology in this area is leading edge, she said, and the United States anticipates that the UAE will give it strong consideration as the UAE moves forward in implementing its plans. In other words, U.S. companies are but a few of many competitors for the nuclear contracts, and the UAE might award them the available projects.

An Advantageous Agreement

Her minor stumble in relieving the concerns about American work prospects, however, should be overshadowed by the benefits to such an agreement. First, the UAE has already concluded a nuclear cooperation agreement with at least France, and several other countries are currently in the negotiation process. Members of Congress are currently vacillating over an American agreement, yet American companies have zero chance of winning the contracts if Congress overrides it.

Second, while the U.S. undoubtedly believes the UAE will not violate the terms of the agreement, emphasizing that business will not take precedent over National Security, the U.S. is in the best position to monitor the UAEs nuclear activities if American companies build and manage them.

Thirdly, it is an opportunity for the U.S. to affirm its welcoming of peaceful nuclear energy programs. Because Iran has dominated the international nuclear stage in recent years, claiming that its nuclear program is peaceful and asserting its right to civilian nuclear energy, and the US has been the loudest voice in condemning it, many perceive the U.S. as a nuclear hypocrite. Its nuclear arsenal contains approximately 10,000 nuclear weapons, yet it either condemns those seeking nuclear technology (some do consider Irans program peaceful) or, as people will say if the agreement with the UAE does not come to fruition, it abandons countries that are devoted to the development of peaceful, civilian nuclear energy.

Lastly, the UAE has become a valued strategic partner of the U.S. in the Middle East; the nuclear cooperation agreement would reinforce that important economic, security, and political relationship. It has cooperated with the U.S. in supporting the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And hopefully after this agreement, the UAE will be more likely to comply with the U.S. and international efforts to quell Irans nuclear aspirations.


In short, though there is a lively debate in Congress about the proposed U.S.-UAE nuclear cooperation agreement, it is very unlikely Congress will oppose President Obamas decision to sign such an agreement. Indeed, there are significant and reasonable concerns surrounding the UAEs connections with Iran and terrorist organizations, but the UAE has taken significant steps in recent years to assuage fears of nuclear proliferation. Members of Congress are using the review period to relay these concerns to the President, but in the end they will realize that by strengthening our strategic relationship with the UAE, an important ally in the Middle East, this agreement is likely to promote American security and interests rather than threaten them.




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