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New U.S.-U.A.E. Deal Raises Eyebrows Amid Concern Over Iran's Nuclear Program

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, south of Tehran, in April 2008.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, south of Tehran, in April 2008.
The United States has signed an agreement to cooperate in developing a civilian nuclear energy program in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.).

The deal -- signed in Washington on January 15 by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her U.A.E. counterpart, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nayhan -- has been promoted by the Bush administration as a major foreign-policy accomplishment and an expression of Washington’s interest in cooperating with countries that are committed to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

But critics are concerned that the agreement, inked as President George W. Bush prepares to leave office, could lead to a nuclear-energy race in the Middle East amid growing concern over Iran’s nuclear activities.

The agreement must be approved by the incoming administration of Barack Obama before being sent to Congress. From there, Congress will have 90 days to act.

'Commerce Above Common Sense'

So far, Obama and his team have been silent about the deal, but others in the Democratic camp have been vocal in their opposition to it.

One is Ed Markey, a congressman from Massachusetts who has been a strong critic of nuclear energy. Markey has urged Obama to reject the deal and halt what he has termed "the Bush administration's policy of placing nuclear commerce above common sense." He further warned that, "In the Middle East, a nuclear-energy race could be as perilous as a nuclear-arms race."

In the Middle East, a nuclear-energy race could be as perilous as a nuclear arms race.
On the other side of the fence, Rice has called the nuclear agreement with the U.A.E. "a powerful and timely model for the region." She said the willingness of the U.A.E. to import, rather than produce, the fuel that would be used in its proposed nuclear reactors "almost" eliminates the proliferation risks.

Bruno Pellaud, a former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and president of the Swiss Nuclear Forum, believes the deal will allow a "smooth introduction" of nuclear power in the Middle East.

"The partners of the United States [allow] access to sensitive nuclear technology like enrichment and reprocessing, so [the agreement] is a good thing," Pellaud says. "However, it is not in line with the world's arrangements, which set the limits and the conditions for use of sensitive technology under the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty.

"So, therefore, it’s a matter of choice for a country to renounce [its right to] such technologies or not, but there is nothing in the context of the prevailing international order which forbids a country which is in good standing with the IAEA to engage in such technology," he said.

'Responsible Development'

The State Department has contrasted the agreement with Iran's nuclear program, saying the U.A.E.'s approach "has the potential to usher in an era of responsible nuclear-energy development throughout the Middle East."

Leaders of the United Arab Emirates have pledged to work closely with the IAEA on the country's planned nuclear activities, and have also agreed to provide complete access to nuclear sites.

The U.A.E. has also pledged to forego any domestic nuclear enrichment or reprocessing that could be diverted for military purposes.

Uranium enrichment is a key issue in the crisis over Iran's nuclear program. Despite three sets of UN sanctions, Tehran has refused to give up sensitive enrichment activities, raising concerns that they could be used for the development of nuclear weapons. Tehran says that under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty., it has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

Washington accuses Iran of secretly developing nuclear weapons and has introduced measures to pressure and isolate the Islamic republic in order to make it change course. Tehran denies the charges.

The United Arab Emirates is Iran’s major trading partner, and some U.S. lawmakers and nonproliferation experts have said that the United States should use the agreement with the U.A.E. to increase pressure on Iran.

Smuggling Concerns

There is also concern that the nuclear technology delivered to the U.A.E. could get to Iran. The country has reportedly been used in the past by nuclear smugglers, but Washington has argued that the U.A.E. has taken measures to prevent money laundering and implemented stricter export-control measures.

Despite this, a ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee has introduced legislation that would condition implementation of the agreement on the U.A.E. making more progress against nuclear smuggling, "The Washington Times" reported on January 16.

Iran has not reacted to the deal. But some observers believe Iranian officials are likely to criticize it as another example of what Tehran has in the past termed as U.S. double standards.

Reza Taghizadeh, a political analyst based in Glasgow, Scotland, believes the deal sends a strong message to Iran.

"The U.S. wants to send the message that they’re not against the development of peaceful nuclear energy by Persian Gulf countries, so Iran will face a situation where its neighboring countries will have the possibility to access nuclear energy and nuclear development will be facilitated for them," Taghizadeh says.

"But Iran, because of its insistence to develop nuclear fuel, will not only face problems in the development of electricity through its nuclear program, but will also face problems in economic cooperation with the free world and the countries in the region," he says.

The United States is reportedly working on nuclear pacts with a number of other countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Pellaud, for one, believes the risks of such deals are minimal.

"I think if it's properly done with proper transparency -- in particular in multinational regional arrangements, topping the verifications carried out by the IAEA -- I see no special risk of proliferation in the region," Pellaud says.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.