US-UAE nuclear energy pact has messages for Iran

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

By ALI AKBAR DAREINI, Associated Press Writer


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — 

An atomic energy deal between the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates, signed in the waning days of the Bush administration, could give Mideast nations a significant boost toward acquiring nuclear technology if Iran pushes ahead with its own ambitions.

The pact signed last week in Washington can help the UAE become the first Arab nation to develop a nuclear power-generating industry as early as 2017, according to U.S. officials.

The Bush administration has championed the agreement as a model for promoting peaceful nuclear energy, while guarding against weapons proliferation. The deal sets the legal groundwork for U.S. commercial nuclear trade with the UAE, which sits just across the Persian Gulf from Iran.

But it also allows Gulf nations worried about Iran's nuclear program to send a signal to Tehran.

"The clear message to Iran is: If Tehran insists on pursuing its nuclear program, we (Arab countries in the region) are going to have one, although without enrichment," said Mustafa Alani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.

"Arab states can no longer ignore nuclear technology. There is a huge nuclear technology gap between the Arab states and their neighbors such as Iran, Pakistan and Israel. We need to work to narrow this gap," Alani said.

It is unclear if the Obama administration will stick with the deal or abandon it. Congress will either block or ratify the deal within 90 days.

Under the deal, the UAE renounces the option of enriching uranium and producing nuclear fuel itself and instead would buy fuel from abroad for a reactor.

Uranium enrichment can be used to produce nuclear fuel but can also generate the material needed for a nuclear weapon _ which is why the United States and its allies are trying to get Iran to suspend its enrichment program.

In Iran, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said the deal showed a U.S. double standard on nuclear technology, pointing to U.S. pressure on Tehran to limit its program.

Iran says its program is aimed only at generating electricity and denies aiming to build a weapon.

Currently, no Arab nation has a full-fledged nuclear energy program, though several _ like Egypt _ have small-scale research reactors. The U.S. signed a technology cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia last month that includes cooperation on a peaceful nuclear energy program. Egypt has also said it intends to develop a peaceful energy program and Washington has said it is willing to help.

Alani said importing nuclear technology does potentially give the UAE a chance to seek nuclear weapons capability in the long term should Iran develop an atomic bomb. The UAE has foresworn nuclear arms as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"If Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is going to collapse and Iran gets a bomb, then it will open the door for an arms race in the region," Alani said.

The State Department says the United States would have grounds to scrap the agreement if the UAE reneges on its commitment not to engage in enrichment or reprocessing activities.

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