Published May 20, 2009
President Barack Obama has approved plans for the U.S. to help the United Arab Emirates become the first Arab nation with a nuclear power industry that will fuel the country's growing demand for electricity.
Obama's official backing of the pact, known as a "123 agreement," is praised by pro-business groups that say U.S. companies are now in the running for major construction work connected to the $41 billion project.
The president's approval comes a few weeks after news organizations, including The Associated Press, obtained a videotape showing a member of the country's royal family torturing a man.
The videotape led to criticism of the emirates' human rights record in the midst of an intense debate over U.S. interrogation methods.
Concerns have also been raised about the emirates' history as a transshipment point for sensitive technology moving into Iran. A small but vocal group of lawmakers have said they'll oppose the deal unless the United Arab Emirates takes stronger action to keep Iran from obtaining materials that could help it develop nuclear weapons.
Despite the objections, it's unlikely Capitol Hill will be a roadblock. Once the State Department sends the agreement to Congress, lawmakers will have 90 days to pass legislation either amending or rejecting the deal. If no bill passes, the agreement goes into effect.
Supporting the emirates' use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes is also intended to be a counterweight to Iran's pursuit of atomic weapons. Obama, as did his predecessor, George W. Bush, sees the emirates' program as a positive example for other countries, especially in the volatile Middle East.
Under the pact, the United Arab Emirates must import, rather than produce, fuel for its nuclear reactors. It also has committed not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel for plutonium, which is used in nuclear bombs.
The agreement creates the legal framework for the U.S. to transfer sensitive nuclear items to the United Arab Emirates. The pact was signed in January by the departing Bush administration, which left the final decision to Obama.
"By moving this agreement forward, the president is creating the potential for thousands of new jobs for American workers," said Danny Sebright, president of the U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council.
"I think the U.A.E. very much wants the U.S. under the tent," Sebright said.
To help guide the agreement through Congress, the United Arab Emirates hired a pair of heavyweight lobbying firms to convince lawmakers the agreement wouldn't end up boosting Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The firms, Akin Gump and DLA Piper, also stressed the promise of jobs for American companies hit hard by a sagging economy.
The United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven states, wants nuclear power by 2017. Although the emirates have plenty of oil, they must import 60 percent of the natural gas they use to generate electricity.
The United Arab Emirates no longer wants to depend on outside sources for its energy needs and settled on nuclear power as the most economical and environmentally friendly option.
The videotape shows Sheik Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan beating a man who allegedly shortchanged him on a grain delivery. Issa is the brother of the Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the country's capital, and deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates' armed forces.
Following an outcry over the video, authorities in the emirates said Issa had been detained and an investigation is under way.
Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., co-chairman of the House Human Rights Commission, said Wednesday he would oppose the 123 agreement because of his concerns over the human rights situation in the emirates.
"I recognize that the U.A.E. is a strategically important country," McGovern said. "But at some point, human rights have to matter."