Nuclear Cooperation with the UAE?
If it doesn't increase our leverage on Iran, is the deal worth it?
Last week, the White House quietly announced that it wants to help the United Arab Emirates (UAE) build a large, advanced nuclear reactor — a plant critical for making either electricity or nuclear bombs. The White House claims getting the UAE to sign a U.S. nuclear-cooperation agreement next week would be a major diplomatic accomplishment, that the UAE has agreed to take several steps that would make it less likely that the UAE will ever make bombs, and that the deal would serve as a model for similar nuclear deals with Algeria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia.
All of this sounds good — but Congress is urging Bush to punt. Why?
First, members worry that the UAE’s close trade relations with Iran will undermine efforts to isolate Iran. Roughly half of the refined gasoline Iran needs to keep its economy and government — and, therefore, its missile and nuclear programs — running comes from India and Europe. All of this imported gasoline is transshipped through ports in the UAE. Those who want to pressure Iran to stop its dangerous nuclear weapons-related activities and its support of terrorists in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, think the U.S. and its friends should threaten to block this trade.
Second, Congress is increasingly wary of the UAE transshipments of militarily useful technology to Iran. Most recently, this included computer chips used in improvised explosive devices that Iran has handed off to Iraqi insurgents who have used them against American troops. Also, recall that Pakistani nuclear-weapons proliferator A. Q. Khan used the UAE as a base of operations to transship sensitive material to Iran. A bipartisan group of Congressmen led by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has already tabled legislation blocking the deal until the president can certify that militarily useful transshipments to Iran through the UAE have stopped, and that the UAE’s export controls — which were only announced last year — are working and effective.
This, then, brings us to Congress’s third worry: It is not altogether clear whether the nuclear deal explicitly blocks the UAE from making nuclear fuel — an activity that, once completed, brings a state within days of acquiring nuclear bombs. The White House claims that it has gotten political commitments from the UAE that it will not make nuclear fuel, that it will not retain materials that might be used to make nuclear fuel, and that it will open itself up to more intrusive international inspections. That may well be, but the only legally binding commitments are those made explicit in the text of the agreement itself — and insiders familiar with the draft that was sent to the U.A.E some weeks ago hint that the agreement is disturbingly silent on the issue of producing nuclear fuel.
To be sure, the UAE is unlikely ever to make nuclear fuel, much less bombs. But, as White House officials themselves have trumpeted, the UAE deal should be seen as a model for other U.S. nuclear-cooperation agreements with states such as Algeria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia — all of whom have previously harbored nuclear-weapons ambitions. Once the U.S.-UAE nuclear deal is signed, it cannot be renegotiated. If the text of the agreement is silent or ambiguous on the issue of making nuclear fuel, and the deal proceeds without Congressional amendment, expect these other more proliferation-prone states to demand identical pacts.
What’s to be done? It would be useful if the UAE could be persuaded to hold off signing the deal. Certainly, President-elect Obama and Secretary of State—designate Clinton should weigh the merits of proceeding with the deal on their own rather than to have the agreement and its possible political consequences foisted on them by a lame-duck president. Similarly, the UAE should be wary of rushing to sign for fear of offending the new administration and Congress. Here, the UAE need only reflect on the negative publicity that surrounded the proposed 2006 deal to have a UAE state-owned company manage six U.S. ports — a deal Congress would later block on national security grounds.
Holding off and clarifying the deal’s terms with the new administration would be the best way to maintain positive U.S.-UAE relations. Given that this makes so much sense, though, it may not happen, and so Congress would then have to determine the conditions necessary to fix the understanding. Here, the House is likely to consider the bipartisan draft legislation tabled by Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen which requires that the president certify the performance of UAE export restraints. Some in Congress may also inquire whether the deal’s text is explicit enough in prohibiting the production of nuclear fuel.
Finally, and perhaps most important, Obama, Clinton, and the Congress will have to determine if it makes sense to lend nuclear cooperation to the UAE without first securing their political commitment to cooperate fully with the U.S. and our allies in sanctioning Iran’s continued nuclear misbehavior. Iran’s economic Achilles heel is its reliance on imported gasoline transshipped through the UAE. If the UAE is unwilling to agree now to help block such trade, Iran — short of an Israeli bolt from the blue — is sure to get the bomb and any prospect of there being much atoms for peace in the Middle East, much less in the UAE, would be little more than a cruel joke.