A U.S. agreement with the United Arab Emirates to help the country develop a nuclear power sector is raising critical concerns that introducing nuclear technology into the volatile Middle East isn't smart policy.
The United Arab Emirates is likely to become the first Arab country in the oil rich Persian Gulf to develop a nuclear power sector under what is called a 123 agreement with the United States. Despite praise from lawmakers regarding the language of the agreement, which is expected to take effect this month, some are concerned about introducing any type of nuclear technology into this volatile region, especially given the UAE’s close relationship with Iran and questions about the country’s commitment to strengthening export controls to prevent illicit goods from passing through its ports.
At a recent House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing, Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) said the accord was the best one the United States has entered into, and he called it a “model” for future agreements, but he also admitted having reservations. “For me, the fundamental issue is not the substance of the agreement itself,” he said. Berman added that his uncertainties centered on whether the UAE is working with the United States to the fullest extent to prevent Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability.
He noted that Iran has used the UAE in the past as a transit point for materials needed to support its nuclear program and expand its military program and that Iranian-affiliated banks continued to operate in Dubai as recently as last year, despite U.S. sanctions.
Representative Ileanna Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the ranking Republican on the committee, said that UAE export control laws were inadequate. “Even if all of the promised reforms were already in place,” she said, “there simply is no track record to determine if they are in fact adequate to the task, particularly in light of the UAE’s long history of complicity or negligence regarding trade with Iran and other countries of concern.”
Named for a section of the Atomic Energy Act, a 123 agreement creates the legal framework for American companies to transfer nuclear equipment or materials to foreign countries for civil or peaceful purposes. The United States currently has 123 agreements with many other countries, including Australia, Japan, and Egypt. Several of these countries, however, including Egypt, only have research reactors, which are smaller and simpler than power reactors.
The UAE 123 Agreement, which was negotiated by the administration of former President George W. Bush but submitted to Congress by President Barack Obama, contains, for the first time in any U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement, a “take-back” clause, which allows the United States to demand the return of equipment and materials if the UAE engages in uranium enrichment or spent-fuel reprocessing activities or operates facilities for such purposes.
In her testimony at the House hearing, Ellen Tauscher, under secretary of state for arms control and international security, called the UAE a “valued partner” that had voluntarily agreed to forgo enrichment and reprocessing, and she praised the 123 agreement as a “significant achievement.”
The UAE, which has 9.5 percent of the world’s proven crude oil reserves and 4 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves, does not appear to need nuclear energy. According to a UAE government Web site, the country’s reserves would last more than 150 years at current usage rates and without any new discoveries.
UAE officials, however, estimate that energy demand will increase 9 percent annually, particularly in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, which currently has several industrial and commercial projects underway in energy-intensive sectors. Energy demand is high and the UAE “wants to export their oil rather than use it domestically,” says Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Henderson says the concerns about Iran are not well-founded. The UAE is a confederation of emirates with Abu Dhabi as the lead emirate, he explains, and the 123 agreement “is essentially a deal between the United States and Abu Dhabi.”
“Abu Dhabi doesn’t like the Iranians, and the installations are going to be within Abu Dhabi territory” he adds.
The biggest risk may be proliferation. “[The UAE has] a very small manpower base for running these nuclear plants, which will, therefore, be run by foreigners,” Henderson says. “Fine, if the foreigners are American or European, less fine if they are, for example, Pakistani, because…the skill set for running a civil power program unfortunately overlaps with the skills needed for naughty things like making bombs.”
Henderson says, however, that the agreement might have a positive, rather than a negative, impact on the region, including in Iran, because it shows that the United States is not against sharing peaceful nuclear power with the Arab world. “We’re not against people having nuclear power plants, we’re just against people having nuclear weapon plants,” he says.
While lawmakers did not raise the issue of human rights at the House hearing, some have expressed those concerns separately. Rep. James McGovern, (D-MA), chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, sent a letter to the committee reminding members of a videotape, which allegedly shows a member of the UAE royal family, Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, and a uniformed police officer torturing a grain dealer. Sheikh Issa is the brother of the UAE’s current president and of the crown prince. The UAE launched an investigation into the matter only after the airing of the videotape on ABC News early this year delayed President Obama’s referral of the nuclear agreement to Congress.
The UAE, however, is not depending on the United States alone for its nuclear energy program. It has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with other countries as well, including France, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.
In July, the House and Senate introduced a joint resolution to approve the proposed agreement, which will go into effect October 17, unless Congress takes action against it.