US-UAE Nuclear Deal a Hint to Iran

DUBAI – The civilian nuclear deal between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United States may fulfill the former’s long-term desire to develop alternative energy sources and the latter’s intention to promote a model for peaceful nuclear energy that sends a hint to Iran.

The Jan. 16 deal, one of the last diplomatic decisions of the Bush administration, is known after Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, which establishes a legal framework for commerce in civilian nuclear energy technology and material.

The pact could help the UAE – with proven oil reserves of about 100 billion barrels, the world’s sixth largest – become the first Arab country to develop a nuclear-power industry by the end of the next decade.

A preliminary agreement on nuclear power cooperation was signed with the U.S. in April 2008 after the UAE released a white paper that represented the coordinated views of a wide spectrum of UAE government entities, inputs from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the governments of France, the U.S., Britain, Russia, China, Japan, Germany, and South Korea.

"This will allow the UAE to develop its civilian nuclear program to the highest standards of safety, security and non-proliferation … and also open opportunities for U.S. firms to be active participants in UAE’s nuclear energy program," foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan said in a statement.

Eckart Woertz, a Dubai-based economist, argues that in the case of the UAE, civilian usage is at the forefront of the nuclear plans. "There is no intention to indulge in the enrichment process like Iran. The fuel supplies will come from other countries like France or the U.S., which means it will not master the nuclear fuel cycle, thus allaying proliferation concerns."

The key to the deal is the UAE’s readiness to import, rather than produce, fuel for the proposed reactors. Apart from agreeing to give the IAEA complete access to its nuclear sites and the right to conduct snap inspections, the UAE has also agreed to return all spent nuclear fuel rather than acquire expertise to reprocess it.

These commitments, referred to as the "gold standard" approach to civil nuclear power development, are seen as contrasting with Iran’s controversial nuclear program

Tehran argues that its program is aimed at generating electricity, but the U.S. and many Western allies have raised fears that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear weapon. Despite pressure and sanctions, Iran persists with enrichment that can be diverted for producing bomb material.

Reacting to the UAE-U.S. deal, Tehran said it exposed U.S. double standards on nuclear technology. Both Iran and UAE are signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Analysts say there is a better case for double standards in the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation deal, signed in October 2008, under which the U.S. got the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to grant a nuclear trade waiver to India, a self-declared nuclear weapons state.

The implementation of this waiver makes India the only country with nuclear weapons which is not a party to the NPT and yet allowed to carry out nuclear commerce with the 45-member NSG.

In 2007, when the six Arab Gulf countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE – asked the IAEA to study the feasibility of a joint nuclear program it appeared as if their plan was motivated by Iran’s nuclear agenda. They have since offered up a valid economic rationale.

Explaining the motive behind the UAE’s plans, Woertz told IPS that, "the background for their nuclear plans is rapidly growing domestic energy demand and a shortfall of natural gas supplies."

While there is a growing concern to reduce its environmental footprint, among the worst in the world, the energy needs of the UAE are increasing rapidly because of its changing demographic profile, its economic growth, and new diversification plans.

It is estimated that by 2020, the UAE would need 40,000 megawatts of electricity to meet its domestic demand. While much of this is expected to be provided by hydrocarbons and renewable sources, the peaceful nuclear program is expected to satisfy at least 15,000 Mw of the requirement.

Some estimates suggest that this could mean six or more nuclear plants, estimated to cost about $5 billion each.

In other efforts, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE and the largest and wealthiest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, has already committed to spending $15 billion on green energy technologies, including the "Masdar Initiative" – a model zero-waste, zero-carbon sustainable city.

Making a head start, the UAE signed a nuclear cooperation pact with France last year, and several French firms have submitted proposals to develop two reactors since then. Likewise, the UAE has also hired the services of two U.S. companies in preparation for the deal and to manage its investments in this sector.

But with at least 40 developing countries around the world, 11 of them in the Middle East, signaling interest in civilian nuclear programs, many in the U.S. and outside are concerned about the possibility of proliferation, resulting in an arms race.

The UAE eagerly awaits the Obama administration’s decision if and when the agreement will be sent to the Congress.

According to established rules, once the Congress is notified about the agreement, it will have 90 days to act. It can either choose to do nothing, in which case the deal becomes effective, or vote to nullify it, or explicitly approve it with conditions.

Irrespective of what transpires in Washington, some doubts remain as to whether this is the best way forward. "Whether nuclear energy is the smartest option or whether energy conservation and solar energy should be more stressed in the long term is a matter of debate," said Woertz.