UAE and US sign nuclear deal

The groundbreaking deal is held up by both countries as a model for the peaceful application of nuclear energy in the region.

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WASHINGTON // The UAE and US signed an agreement for the exchange of civilian nuclear power capability today, in a groundbreaking deal held up by both countries as a model for the peaceful application of nuclear energy in the region. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE Foreign Minister, signed the deal - which is required for the transfer of nuclear materials and technologies - at a brief afternoon ceremony at the main headquarters of the US state department. If the agreement clears the US Congress, where some lawmakers have raised concerns, it will likely make the UAE the first Arab country with nuclear power as part of a multibillion-dollar effort to meet the country's rapidly growing demand for electricity. "This agreement will benefit both of our countries, and is another example of the strong relationship between the United States and the UAE," Sheikh Abdullah said in a statement before the signing. "Under the terms of this agreement, the UAE will gain access to significant capabilities and experience in the peaceful use of nuclear energy which will allow the UAE to develop its civil nuclear programme to the highest standards of safety, security and non-proliferation. The agreement would also open opportunities for US firms to be active participants in the UAE's peaceful nuclear programme." Electricity demand has come to the fore in recent years, as the region's rapidly growing economies, population and industrialisation have sharply increased the strains on supplies of natural gas used to fuel power plants in the region. Most Gulf countries have seized on nuclear energy as a means of generating power without using oil reserves, their primary source of foreign income. Nuclear power, though cash intensive, is seen as both clean and efficient and, most important, requiring relatively small amounts of nuclear fuel per megawatt produced. The so-called 123 agreement - named after that section of the US Atomic Energy Act - sets specific controls and reporting requirements governing the use of nuclear technology and materials purchased from the US. In the weeks leading up to the signing, officials from the Bush administration and the UAE fanned out across Washington in an effort to explain the UAE's approach to the introduction of peaceful nuclear power with key lawmakers in the US Congress - and avoid the kind of controversy that erupted in 2006 over a plan for DP World to assume operations of several US ports. The UAE has renounced domestic enrichment and reprocessing of nuclear fuel and pledged "complete operational transparency", saying it will conform to all standards and safeguards of the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency. As a result, US and UAE officials say, the agreement serves as a kind of "gold standard" for safety, security and non-proliferation. Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US, met on Wednesday with one of the agreement's most vocal critics on Capitol Hill, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and the US Chamber of Commerce yesterday sent a letter to the Hill in support of it. The US-UAE Business Council, which is affiliated with the chamber of commerce, will launch its own campaign to push the agreement as well. The Bush administration was not expected in its final days to submit the agreement to Congress, triggering the start of the period of 90 consecutive session days lawmakers have to review it. Instead it is leaving it to the incoming administration to submit, officials said. The UAE had sought to conclude the agreement under the Bush administration, with which it was negotiated, but knows it will need the support of the incoming US president, Barack Obama. No official meetings have taken place between embassy officials and the incoming Obama administration, but the embassy has reached out to the transition team. Mr Obama has not made his position on the matter known. In an interview in Washington this week, David V Scott, director of economic affairs for the Executive Affairs Authority of Abu Dhabi, said UAE officials are "cautiously optimistic" that the agreement will ultimately be embraced by the majority of congressional lawmakers. He emphasised that the programme is not dependent on US involvement. The UAE has signed similar agreements with numerous other countries including Russia, France and the UK. The UAE could still pursue those agreements even if the one with the US falls through. "The programme's going to move forward because we need to deliver that electricity," Mr Scott said. But he added: "What we think exists here is a compelling case that US interests are best served by this agreement." Nonetheless, the agreement has faced some resistance in Washington, most of it focused on Iran's nuclear capabilities. Some lawmakers have expressed concerns that the UAE has not been tough enough enforcing export controls preventing illegal "dual use" goods from reaching Iran. Bush administration and UAE officials have made particular efforts to court the Democratic chairmen and the top Republicans on two key panels, foreign affairs in the House of Representatives and foreign relations in the Senate. Howard Berman, who heads House foreign affairs, released a statement on Wednesday calling the agreement "encouraging", but offering a caveat. "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 - as a legally binding obligation," he said. "This could be a significant advance in non-proliferation policy, and a model for future nuclear co-operation agreements. "However, I and many other members of Congress place a very high priority on the international effort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and will be analysing this and any other nuclear co-operation agreement in the context of how it implicates the attainment of that goal." The top Republican on the same panel, Mrs Ros-Lehtinen, has opposed the agreement outright unless a series of conditions concerning trade with Iran are met. Last week, she reintroduced legislation from the last Congress called the Limitation on Nuclear Cooperation with the United Arab Emirates Act. Under her bill the White House would have to certify to Congress - before the agreement could enter into force - that the UAE is taking "effective actions" to prevent the transfer of illegal goods to Iran and is fully implementing United Nations Security Council sanctions on that country. The White House also would have to attest that the UAE has "developed and fully implemented an export control regime in accordance with international standards" and taken steps "to target the logistical and financial networks that support terrorist organisations". Prior to meeting with Ambassador Otaiba on Wednesday, Mrs Ros-Lehtinen released a statement insisting the US "should not even consider a nuclear co-operation agreement with the UAE so long as that country continues to complicate international efforts to halt's Iran's deadly nuclear ambitions". Brad Sherman, a California Democrat who is among the seven co-sponsors of the bill, has called for hearings and vowed to try to prevent the agreement from going into effect until the transshipment issue has been, in his words, "adequately addressed". But he added: "I do not rule out support for agreements with energy rich states, including those in the Gulf, if the country in question truly does posses the will and capability necessary to adhere to the highest non-proliferation standards." Equally important, some US lawmakers said, was the importance of being able to hold the agreement up to the light, ask questions and fully learn the issues. "Right now, to be honest, I don't think that many of us really know a lot about this issue," John Boozman, an Arkansas Republican who was another signatory to the bill, said in a recent interview. Mr Boozman said he would not be opposed in principle to the agreement if the conditions in Mrs Ros-Lehtinen's bill are met. Hamad Al Kaabi, who has been nominated as the UAE's permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in Washington this week that UAE officials have been addressing - and will continue to address - lawmakers' concerns. "It's continuous outreach," he said. He said great strides had been made in preventing the movement of illegal goods across the UAE's borders. The state department this week cited the UAE, among other governments, for working closely with the US in its effort to shut down the nuclear proliferation network of the Pakistani scientist AQ Khan. One of the front companies for Mr Khan's network is said to have been based in Dubai. Ambassador Kaabi said the UAE is acutely sensitive to concerns about nuclear security, in light of its location, and stressed its commitment to a peaceful programme that meets the highest security standards. "The agreement clearly states the UAE commitment to forgo enrichment and not to reprocess," he said. "You take these elements out and your programme is purely safe."