The United States and the United Arab Emirates have hammered out a nuclear cooperation deal that would bring U.S. atomic technology and know-how to a site less than a hundred miles from Iran’s shores, an envoy from the Persian Gulf monarchy confirmed Monday to state media.
The deal, if implemented, would be the first of its kind involving the U.S. and an Arab country, experts said. The agreement could, in part, placate Arab countries that are pining to obtain nuclear technology to balance Iran’s controversial uranium enrichment program while dissuading them from developing dual-use technologies on their own that could be reconfigured for weapons production.
“We are confident that the agreement highlights the transparency of the civilian nuclear energy program the UAE is embarking on and should be lauded as the gold standard of nuclear cooperation agreements,” Yousef Otaiba, the emirates’ ambassador to the U.S., told the official Emirates News Agency on Monday.
He said the agreement set “a new standard in ensuring the highest standards of safety, security and nonproliferation.”
But others are skeptical. Critics of the deal, first acknowledged by unnamed U.S. officials cited by the Wall Street Journal late last week, worry about Iran’s cozy ties with the UAE, which acts as a transit point for billions of dollars in goods that make their way from the West and Asia to Iran.
The UAE, which includes the freewheeling city-state of Dubai, also has been accused of serving as a money-laundering station.
Pakistani nuclear weapons scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan used a Dubai company to secretly sell sensitive atomic components to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Arms control expert David Albright of the Institute for International Science and International Security likened the UAE to a “nuclear smugglers’ hub.”
“I think it’s a little premature for cooperation unless the UAE makes certain steps,” which include adjusting trade policies with Iran, setting up a stringent regulatory system and signing on to additional intrusive inspections, said Albright, whose Washington think tank issued a report Nov. 12 through its website, www.isis-online.org warning of a coming boom in Middle East nuclear technology.
Some Washington lawmakers also eye the deal with suspicion. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) introduced legislation this month that would require the White House to verify that the UAE has not served as a conduit for banned goods and services to Iran for at least a year before it receives any nuclear technology.
Emirates officials have acknowledged the potential congressional snag over proliferation worries, and they say the government is “working closely” with lawmakers.
The nuclear deal is about economics as much as security. With limited oil reserves and burgeoning energy needs for its gleaming and rapidly expanding cities, the UAE has been considering investing in nuclear energy technology for years.
“For the [Persian] Gulf, the argument seems to be accepted that nuclear energy should be used to generate power, freeing oil and gas for export,” former weapons inspector Hans Blix said at a conference last month in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, according to a report in the National, an English-language daily. “I am fully in favor of oil-rich countries having nuclear reactors.”
The federation of kingdoms, led by the royal family in Abu Dhabi, funded a $100-million nuclear commission in line with International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines in March. Some countries see a possible nuclear gold rush in the gulf region.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy signed a potentially lucrative nuclear cooperation deal with the UAE during a January visit. And U.S. companies stand to earn millions if the nuclear cooperation deal bears fruit.
Early U.S. engagement on the nuclear issue could force other nuclear component suppliers to adhere to higher nonproliferation standards, Albright said.
“The French will probably demand less, and that’s why the U.S. should get involved and make sure countries don’t undercut it,” he said. “If the U.S. doesn’t take leadership on this, all the countries will demand less.”