- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama wants to go to zero nuclear weapons. But his first official act of nuclear restraint - the submission to Congress of a U.S. civilian nuclear cooperative agreement with the United Arab Emirates - suggests why we might not get there.

At a hearing July 8, House Foreign Affairs Committee members worried aloud that the deal with the United Arab Emirates might not be the needed “peaceful” alternative to the situation in Iran, a country accused of trying to exploit civilian nuclear energy to make bombs. Should the United States use it as a template for similar deals with other Arab states that, given Iran’s program, have announced plans to build nuclear power reactors of their own? Members on both sides of the aisle were not entirely convinced.

The deal conditions the transfer of U.S. nuclear goods upon the United Arab Emirates not making nuclear fuel - a process that could bring any state within weeks of acquiring nuclear weapons. It also requires the UAE to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect its nuclear program under a new set of less constrained procedures known as the Agreed Protocol.

All of this sounds pretty good. But committee members raised three sticking points.

First, how willing is the United Arab Emirates to sanction Iran? Certainly, if Iran gets a pass for bending the nuclear rules, its model for developing civilian nuclear energy (and getting within weeks of a bomb) would appeal to its insecure neighbors far more than any no-nuclear fuel-making scheme ever could. Conversely, if its nuclear misbehavior is sanctioned heavily, Tehran would become an example to be avoided.

Getting the United Arab Emirates to back sanctions will be critical. Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat, noted that roughly $12 billion in foreign goods destined for Iran pass through Dubai, including nearly all of Iran’s refined petroleum imports. Given Iran’s heavy dependence on outside oil refiners, Congress has proposed sanctioning firms and states that export gasoline to Iran or help it refine oil.

The worry is that the United Arab Emirates will not play ball. At the hearing, Rep. Ed Royce, California Republican, quoted Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE prime minister, as saying that Iran’s nuclear program was an “internal matter … as long as our brothers in Iran continue to reassure the world that the program is peaceful.” Both congressmen seemed dismayed that the State Department had not yet secured a UAE commitment to support trade sanctions against Iran if they became necessary.

Second, other key nuclear suppliers have yet to support the deal’s sound nonproliferation conditions. The agreement’s text says the United States would terminate cooperation and could demand that the United Arab Emirates return what the United States had sold it if the UAE went ahead and tried to make nuclear fuel. However, the French nuclear cooperative agreement with the United Arab Emirates has no such conditions. Unless the United States gets France and other key nuclear suppliers - for example, Germany and Russia - to agree to uphold our conditions, the United Arab Emirates could buy from these less-restrictive suppliers and make nuclear fuel.

Of course, it is unlikely that the United Arab Emirates would ever do this, but other Middle Eastern states such as Jordan, which recently professed a desire to make nuclear fuel, might. If they did, they might forfeit their right to acquire controlled U.S. nuclear goods, but, as Mr. Sherman noted, the United Arab Emirates and other Middle Eastern states might not buy from the United States anyway. In fact, no U.S. nuclear firm would risk selling to states that have not formally protected these firms from being sued in the case of a nuclear accident. No Arab state, including the United Arab Emirates, has yet legally provided such protection. Bottom line: Our diplomats need to approach the other key nuclear suppliers about adopting the nonproliferation conditions of the U.S.-United Arab Emirates deal. So far, they haven’t.

Finally, the United States has yet to get the kind of inspections needed to verify the UAE pledge not to make nuclear fuel. The IAEA has repeatedly asked Iran to allow the agency to establish secure communication links to the IAEA’s remote inspection cameras. Tehran has rebuffed each request. These links are necessary to enable officials in Vienna to see that their cameras are not being interfered with and that reactor fuel containing materials that can be used to make bombs isn’t being diverted during the 90-day interval between human inspector visits.

Since the IAEA admits it cannot reliably detect covert nuclear-fuel-making plants - especially ones that have not yet been operating - getting the United Arab Emirates and other Middle Eastern states to allow near-real-time surveillance is not just nice, but critical to verify any minimally credible fuel-making pledge. But as Mr. Royce and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska Republican, learned while questioning administration officials at the hearing, our diplomats have yet to ask.

This is a mistake. Certainly, tying up all these loose ends would strengthen Mr. Obama’s hand in dealing with Iran. It also would make his nuclear nonproliferation rhetoric ring far less hollow. And if he ignores these reasonable congressional requests? In this case, Mr. Obama’s noble efforts to develop atoms for peace in the Middle East could easily be turned into nuclear bombs for sneaks.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and a member of the congressional Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism.

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