WASHINGTON – The Bush administration signed a nuclear cooperation agreement on Thursday with the United Arab Emirates, a last-minute deal that saddles the coming Obama administration with a decision on helping a Persian Gulf ally develop nuclear power despite concerns in Congress.
The deal sets the legal groundwork for U.S. commercial nuclear trade with the UAE, which has foresworn nuclear arms as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Despite the emirates' status as a key U.S. partner in the Middle East, some in Congress say the UAE has done too little to help stem the illicit flow of nuclear supplies to its Gulf neighbor and commercial partner, Iran.
The Bush administration, backed by a leading nuclear-control advocacy group and U.S. business groups, calls the deal an important expression of U.S. interest in cooperating with countries that want to develop nuclear power for peaceful uses. The agreement is a framework for future commercial trade; it does not provide specific technology or any materials.
While the deal was forged by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in one of her final acts of diplomacy, it will be the Obama administration that will have to decide whether the agreement is sent to Congress.
Obama's national security spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson, would not say whether he supports the deal. The proposed agreement was not raised during Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday. Still, it is central to the debate about international nuclear controls.
Once Congress is notified of the agreement, it will have 90 days to act. It can choose to do nothing, in which case the deal would go into effect; it can vote to kill it, or it can approve it with explicit conditions attached.
At a signing ceremony Thursday with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, Rice called the deal "a powerful and timely model for the region."
Rice later told reporters the key to the deal is the UAE's willingness to import, rather than produce, fuel that would be used in its proposed nuclear reactors. The UAE also would return all spent nuclear fuel rather than attain the technical capability to reprocess it. Reprocessing is a key step in building a nuclear bomb.
"That really does minimize — matter of fact, almost eliminates — the proliferation risks," Rice said.
The deal has thus far drawn relatively little reaction, pro or con, in Congress.
On Thursday, Democratic Rep. Ed Markey, a strong critic of nuclear energy, urged Obama to reject the deal.
"In the Middle East, a nuclear energy race could be as perilous as a nuclear arms race," Markey said. "I hope that President-elect Obama will seize the opportunity to put the brakes on the Bush administration's policy of placing nuclear commerce above common sense."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced legislation to block the agreement unless the UAE meets requirements to stop shipments of equipment and technologies to Iran in violation of U.S. laws and U.N. sanctions.
"Serious concerns remain regarding the UAE's efforts to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, as well as the effectiveness of their export control system," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement Wednesday.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce praised the deal, saying it will boost U.S. trade relations in the Middle East.
"This agreement creates an important model for the anticipated global renaissance in nuclear energy," said Danny Sebright, president of the Chamber's U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council.
Over the past year, the UAE has hired two U.S. engineering companies — Thorium Power Ltd. of Virginia and CH2M Hill of Colorado for consulting services, management and development work in preparation for the deal.
The UAE supports U.S. anti-terror goals, although it has a long and deep commercial relationship with Iran, which has stirred U.S. misgivings about nuclear proliferation by the growth of its uranium enrichment efforts. Iran, a Persian Muslim state rather than Arab, insists its program is for power supply only.
The UAE has large oil reserves but has pushed nuclear development as a way to meet future energy needs. Explosive development in recent years has put its electrical supplies under increasing strain.
Democratic Rep. Howard L. Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Wednesday that his panel will examine the deal.
"I'm encouraged that this agreement incorporates the UAE's public commitment not to enrich uranium or to reprocess spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, which can be used for nuclear bombs," Berman said.
Laura Holgate, head of nuclear programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group that seeks to reduce the threat from nuclear weapons and the spread of nuclear arms technology, said Thursday that the UAE deal is helpful because it enshrines the UAE's public pledge to build its nuclear program without producing its own nuclear fuel or reprocess it once it is used in the reactors.
"It's really an important breakthrough and may be a model for other agreements that we do in the region," she said in a telephone interview.
The UAE, a nation of seven independent city-states including Abu Dhabi and Dubai, has been an ally in America's campaign against terror but also was one of only three nations that supported the Taliban during its 1990s-era reign in Afghanistan.
The emirates have allowed the U.S. military to operate at an air base in the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, and U.S. warships regularly dock in Dubai's ports.
The UAE triggered a political storm in 2006 that compelled it to cancel plans to buy a British outfit that helped run six major U.S. ports.