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National Review Online, "Nuclear Dealing: A proposed agreement with a crucial Middle East state deserves close scrutiny"

National Review Online publishes "Nuclear Dealing: A proposed agreement with a crucial Middle East state deserves close scrutiny."

Mar 25, 2009
AUTHOR: Henry Sokolski
Nuclear Dealing-A proposed agreement with a crucial Middle East state .... (PDF) 28.08 KB

FROM: Natinoal Review Online

Nuclear Dealing:

A proposed agreement with a crucial Middle East state deserves close scrutiny

Unless cooler heads prevail, Congress will soon receive the first civilian nuclear cooperation agreement of the Obama administration — an agreement hastily drafted and signed with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the waning days of the Bush administration. Congress and the executive branch need to make sure this deal doesn’t end up spreading the very nuclear-weapons capabilities it’s supposed to curb.

On that point, there’s cause for concern.

The State Department says it will use the deal not just to promote nuclear trade with the UAE, but as a template for U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements with Algeria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia — states that, unlike the UAE, have previously harbored nuclear-weapons ambitions.  The department insists the deal’s provisions will keep the UAE (and, by implication, any other state that signs a deal based on the UAE text) from making nuclear fuel — a step that could bring a state within days or weeks of building nuclear bombs. It also says that the agreement requires the UAE to accept the most intrusive level of nuclear inspections.

This all sounds pretty good, except for one thing: None of it is actually required by the agreement (the deal’s text can be read here). Instead, the deal invokes the UAE’s voluntary commitment not to engage in sensitive nuclear activities such as nuclear-fuel production — a commitment that the UAE could undo overnight. Then it explicitly states that nothing in the agreement should be read to undermine the UAE’s inalienable right to develop and produce “peaceful nuclear energy” in conformity with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) — a right that the U.S. State Department’s legal division interprets to include (you guessed it) the right to make nuclear fuel if the fuel making is declared and inspected.

As a hedge against this possibility, the agreement allows the U.S. to require the return of any controlled nuclear goods it might sell the UAE. Again, this sounds tough until one realizes that the U.S. is unlikely to make any such sales anytime soon. In fact, the odds-on favorite for the first UAE reactor order, which will not require any controlled goods from the U.S. to complete, is AREVA, a French nuclear vendor.

Why would the UAE buy French first? AREVA is owned and backed by the French government and does not require its customers to carry significant nuclear-accident insurance coverage or to channel liability claims away from the vendor. Private U.S. nuclear vendors, whose financial assets might be vulnerable to lawsuits after a nuclear accident, do require these things. The strong U.S. industry preference is that foreign customers first ratify an international agreement known as the Convention on Supplemental Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC), something the UAE has yet to do.

All this is a long way of saying that the agreement’s toughest nonproliferation provisions may be a dead letter for some time, possibly forever. It is also worth noting that none of the nuclear agreements that Moscow and Paris have struck with the UAE and other Middle Eastern states have provisions that prohibit the making of nuclear fuel, much less ones that demand the return of controlled nuclear goods if the UAE engages in sensitive nuclear activities. This means that the UAE could import fuel-making goods from these states and, assuming it had not yet bought any controlled nuclear goods from the U.S., suffer no consequences.

Inspections are another area where the agreement is not what it seems. Its wording makes reference to the very toughest type of inspection — the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol — which the UAE is quite willing to undergo. Unfortunately, the agreement does not actually require it to do so. With a state like the UAE, which has no ambitions to develop nuclear weapons, this is not a problem. But the UAE agreement is meant to serve as a pattern for those with other Middle Eastern states, even ones like Algeria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, all of which have lusted after the bomb. How a UAE-style agreement would work to keep these states from going nuclear is more than a bit unclear.

If these issues were all we had to worry about, they would be more than enough to give us pause. Unfortunately, there is a major additional worry — Iran. The UAE is one of Tehran’s most significant trading partners. Because the UAE sits directly across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran, almost everything the Iranian revolutionary government needs to survive must pass either through or by the ports of Dubai. Historically, the UAE has turned a blind eye to military and even nuclear-related exports through Dubai. A. Q. Khan, the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear program, actually set up a major nuclear export operation there. More recently, the U.S. was forced to sanction the UAE for allowing key components of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to make their way to Iran, where they were assembled into bombs that threatened U.S. servicemen in Iraq. This history raises not just the immediate concern of how good the UAE’s export controls might be, but the larger question of the UAE’s willingness to work, if necessary, with the U.S. and its allies to isolate Iran for its nuclear misbehavior.

If planned U.S. nuclear talks with Tehran fail to produce the desired results, and the Russians and Chinese are unwilling to back tougher U.N. sanctions against Iran, can the U.S. count on the UAE to cooperate in tightening trade with Iran? Would the UAE help the U.S. and its allies to block Iranian gasoline imports going through the Strait of Hormuz? What about basing missile-defense units in the UAE? As the UAE’s ambassador to the U.S. has noted, finalizing the UAE nuclear deal would be a way for the U.S. to demonstrate that it trusts the UAE as a major security ally. He is right. But for this to be true, the UAE must also clarify what it is willing to do.

As for our government, it needs to exercise due diligence. Certainly, there is no reason to rush. With the recent, dramatic disintegration of Dubai’s real-estate market, whose astronomic growth depended upon wealthy foreign investors, the UAE’s near-term electricity-demand projections, which seemed to justify the construction of a large power reactor, are no longer so great as to force events. For the time being, the UAE has ready access to sufficient amounts of much cheaper natural gas.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has yet to send to the Senate the appointments critical to implementing this or any nuclear cooperation agreement.  Given all the questions that the UAE deal raises, and reports last year in the Wall Street Journal that the UAE had given the Clintons’ charitable foundation nearly $6 million, the idea of Secretary Clinton pushing this deal through without the views of her Senate-approved appointees is less than optimal.

This is where Congress can help should urge the Administration to do its homework before it submits the deal Congress. It should insist that the State Department hold off on sending the deal to Congress until Foggy Bottom completes a full policy review and shares it with key congressional committees. In the interim, the secretary might seek Senate approval of the appointees she needs to consult with to complete this review.

The policy appraisal should evaluate how necessary nuclear power is over the next decade for each of the Middle Eastern states we intend to cooperate with. It should explain how State intends to make the UAE’s nonproliferation commitments binding not only on the UAE, but on other Middle Eastern states, and detail the proliferation risks the U.S. might run in promoting large nuclear-reactor projects in the Middle East generally.

It also should clarify how the U.S. intends to prevent other nuclear supplier states, such as France or Russia, from undercutting whatever nonproliferation commitments the UAE might make. Finally, the review should detail precisely what the UAE is prepared to do in cooperation with the U.S. to sanction and isolate Iran further if nuclear negotiations with Iran fail or the U.N. Security Council is unable to agree on much stronger sanctions.

This assessment could take several months. But the nuclear future that the proposed UAE deal will cast is one the U.S. and the world will have to live with for decades, and if it is not done right, there will be plenty to regret and little to fall back on.

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