Should the United States sell advanced civilian nuclear reactors to a Middle East country that doesn’t seem to need them? A country that can keep pumping oil for the next 100 years, that has a pipeline to a vast natural gas field next door and enough desert for a solar panel array of biblical proportions?
No, it’s not Iran. It’s the United Arab Emirates, that federation of seven states, proposing the efficient and safest nuclear-generating program money can buy. It intends to purchase third-generation nuclear reactors from France, the United States, South Korea or Japan to power and air-condition its glittering desert cities and use the surplus heat to desalinate its drinking water at the same time. And it’s in the U.S. national interest to help the UAE do it, as counterintuitive as that may seem to the American right wing, the green wing or nonproliferation hawks.
Why? First, because the U.S. cannot stop the emirates from proceeding, even if we wanted to. The UAE has joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and an alphabet soup of other international covenants aimed at stopping proliferation and trafficking. All Congress could stop is U.S. companies from competing for the lucrative contracts.
Second, the UAE is a friendly Arab nation fighting alongside NATO in Afghanistan. It soaked up $11.6 billion worth of U.S. exports in 2007 and has been investing in marquee American companies, including a $7.5-billion stake in Citigroup. It hosts a U.S. Air Force base. And its Sunni rulers are, if anything, even more spooked than we are by the prospect of a hegemonic, nuclear-armed Iran.
But most important, the U.S. should endorse and assist the UAE because its proposal could serve as a model to Iran and other countries for how to build an environmentally friendly civilian nuclear plant that doesn’t make the world conclude that your real goal is a nuclear bomb.
There is, of course, ample cause for concern. North Korea used spent fuel from its Yongbyon nuclear generator to extract enough plutonium for perhaps six nuclear bombs. It tested one in 2006 and gave the West another anxiety attack last weekend by firing a rocket that -- if it ever works -- could carry a plutonium warhead. Iran has opened its fuel enrichment plant in Natanz, allegedly to fuel a civilian reactor in Bushehr, which is scheduled to begin operation this year. The Iranians could end up with enough uranium for a bomb in less than 10 years.
Iran’s neighbors fear not only nuclear weapons but the potential fallout from an accident. Kuwaiti officials point out that Bushehr is in earthquake territory, less than 200 miles from Kuwait City. They have reminded the Iranians of Chernobyl and noted that the winds tend to blow counterclockwise across the Persian Gulf -- toward them.
The UAE model isn’t foolproof; cheating and accidents are always possible. But it’s as safe as a nuclear program can be. Abu Dhabi has rejected Canadian nuclear technology because the heavy-water reactors generate plutonium-laden waste. It nixed Russian stuff as too old and risky. That leaves the U.S., Japan, South Korea and France as possible suppliers of advanced light-water reactors.
In its waning days, the Bush administration signed a civilian nuclear cooperation deal with the UAE. The deal requires approval from Congress, and the UAE is lobbying to have it taken up in May. The Obama administration should push for quick approval.
The most interesting aspect of the UAE plan is what it doesn’t do. To eliminate the risk of nuclear diversion, Abu Dhabi has decided to “forgo the fuel cycle” -- it will buy its reactor fuel from abroad and return the spent fuel for reprocessing, instead of enriching its own. During European-led negotiations with Iran, Russia offered Iran a similar deal. Tehran refused, insisting on its own enrichment technology. That has only reinforced suspicions of its motives.
President Obama has vowed to try again to strike a peaceful deal with Iran. But his overture last month was promptly scorned by Tehran, including in an article on this page, as lacking in seriousness, substance and spirit of atonement for the Great Satan’s longtime sins.
The White House is reportedly working on a detailed proposal. It might consider offering Iran what it says it wants: an advanced civilian nuclear program that would put Tehran in the technological vanguard. Iran could be allowed to purchase the same reactor technology that the UAE will be permitted to buy, in exchange for abandoning enrichment and allowing inspections.
Broke and busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. lacks the will and wherewithal to force Iran to forswear the bomb, and sanctions haven’t cowed Tehran. The only realistic way to deter Iran today is to offer it something it might genuinely want. Would advanced nuclear energy, normal relations with the U.S., an end to sanctions and less tension with its neighbors be enough to interest Tehran? Would the Iranians accept a deal from Obama that they already rejected from Moscow? Is there anything they want more than to build a bomb?
Perhaps not. But if Tehran refused, it would lose whatever credibility remains to its claim that its nuclear ambitions are purely peaceful. It would also have to stop railing that the U.S. seeks to keep it technologically backward and excluded from the elite nuclear club.
And if it said yes, then next year when Iran again observes its annual “National Nuclear Technology Day,” it would actually have something to celebrate.
Sonni Efron, a Washington-based writer, is a contributing editor to Opinion.