ABRAMS: An Arab counterexample

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COMMENTARY:

In January of this year, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister signed a so-called 123 Agreement.

The agreement committed the United States to cooperation with the United Arab Emirates in establishing the Arab world’s first peaceful nuclear energy program. Now, as the agreement comes up for debate in Congress, opponents and critics of the 123 Agreement are raising proliferation concerns and citing the illegal smuggling of goods into Iran through Dubai, which undercuts U.N. and U.S. sanctions against the Iranian regime.

Congress should quickly approve the agreement when it is presented. The U.A.E. is a firm ally of the United States and deserves better treatment than it received in the Dubai Ports World fiasco in 2006. The 123 Agreement must be judged on its merits, not on the basis of accusations or plain prejudice.

While President Obama struggled this month to persuade NATO member nations to pledge more troops for Afghanistan, it was rarely mentioned that one small country contributes the only Arab force there with a full combat mission. That country is the United Arab Emirates: population under 900,000 yet willing since 2003 to commit hundreds of Special Forces troops. This presence of U.A.E. forces was only revealed in 2008, so the U.A.E. government was not doing it for the publicity; it was doing it because it supports the cause.

The Obama administration will find that this is no anomaly: During the past decade, the United Arab Emirates has become an increasingly valuable and reliable friend for the United States, willing to work with us quietly at key international meetings and to use its oil wealth to support many joint goals in the region.

Lebanon is an example: At the Paris Pledging Conference for aid to Lebanon in 2007, the United Arab Emirates pledged $300 million - and then delivered. This year the U.A.E. signed security and economic agreements with Lebanon, continuing its efforts there. The U.A.E. is also a key aid contributor along with the United States to Iraq (and was the first Gulf country to send an ambassador to Baghdad); to Afghanistan, to which it has given $500 million in development funding; to Pakistan, pledging $300 million at the recent aid conference; and to the Palestinian Authority. In the Arab world, it is a force for moderation, a voice we can count on, and a generous source of assistance for policies we and they are pursuing in parallel.

As to the flow of goods into Iran via Dubai, one of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates, the U.A.E. federal government is now taking steps against it. In 2007, the United Arab Emirates instituted new export laws in an effort to establish greater control over its export trade. Progress in enforcing the new export control law is flawed but undeniable. U.A.E. official releases note that dozens of companies have been charged with money laundering or trafficking dual-use goods and have been shut down.

Moreover, the U.A.E. government has seized ships destined for Iran containing goods that could have military application. These efforts highlight a divergence between the U.A.E. federal government and the local governments of each emirate. In the context of smuggling, not all emirates are created equal: Dubai’s huge port is a hole in the net of Iranian sanctions. Dubai must crack down on rampant smuggling, and the U.A.E. federal government has significantly stepped up pressure. U.A.E. officials note the closure of companies operating in Dubai without proper licensing as well as the thwarting of suspect shipments headed for Iran via Dubai.

Dubai has also recently introduced a mobile laboratory capable of detecting illicit substances in an effort to further curb smuggling. Stuart A. Levey, U.S. Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence in both the Bush and Obama administrations, concludes: “The U.A.E. is taking steps to be vigilant. They have a challenge there, and they are starting to grapple with it.”

But the main argument for approval of the 123 Agreement involves the merits of the agreement itself and its ability to serve as a model of responsible behavior. A successful and fully safeguarded U.A.E. nuclear program would provide a model for peaceful nuclear technology in the Middle East - and a powerful counterexample to Iran.

Unlike the regime in Tehran, the United Arab Emirates has gone above and beyond the call of duty in assuring the world its nuclear program would be peaceful and totally transparent. The government has agreed to seek external fuel arrangements and will not pursue any enrichment or reprocessing. This month it signed an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) known as the “Additional Protocol,” allowing stringent, “snap” inspections of any facilities that are built. Tehran, on the other hand, has actively flouted international inspection commitments for years, relentlessly pursuing enrichment and reprocessing that easily facilitate a weaponization program.

The U.A.E. model, as Hamad al-Kaabi, the U.A.E.’s ambassador to the IAEA described the U.A.E.’s nuclear effort as “really a counter to what Iran is doing in terms of transparency and in terms of high standards of safety.”

“We are trying to make our program a gold standard for how a national state in our area can pursue an energy program through nuclear power and be so transparent that everybody will be reassured,” said the U.A.E.’s minister of state for foreign affairs.

The United Arab Emirates is an ally in our efforts to stop Iran from deploying nuclear weapons and dominating the entire Gulf region, and should be treated as such. In fact, the United States and the U.A.E. are making this 123 Agreement a model whose terms could be adopted by other countries committed to the very best practices.

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