Obama Tested BY US-UAE Nuke Deal
In her hour-long appearance on Meet The Press last weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made much of the threat that North Korea poses not only as a potentially unpredictable nuclear weapons deployment state, but also as a proliferation agent. Similarly, the question of possible repurposing of civil nuclear technology has been a talking point in US policy on Iran, and that question specifically has been a bone of contention in the triangular posturing between the US, Iran and Russia.
Another civil nuclear deal with another Middle Eastern country is also beginning to get some attention, including what should be an eyebrow-raising analysis by a leading US nonproliferation expert in last week’s Washington Times. But, there’s one wrinkle: this time the country is a US ally and the proliferation partner is… us.
In what some pundits billed as an early challenge for the incoming Obama administration, the Bush White House put the finishing touches on a US-United Arab Emirates civil nuclear deal just days before 43 turned over the garage door opener and extra set of keys. The deal requires Congressional approval, but some wondered if Obama and Clinton would not back out of the deal before it came to that. In May, Obama indicated his intention to move forward with the partnership and the proposal was before Congress in July for its first round of hearings.
Meanwhile, the UAE is also busy launching Masdar, a renewable energy company that will be based in Masdar City, the world’s first planned “zero carbon, zero waste” city, built from scratch. As big a social, civil and energy systems engineering project as that city is on its face, once you start following the chain of links, you find that Masdar opens the door to many other UAE projects, including the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), an energy/engineering graduate school. While it is not a well-publicized part of MIST’s curriculum, at least a part of the school’s resources will be devoted to nuclear research.
A US nuke deal, an energy institute that is going to have a lot of cash and resources at its disposal, and close ties to Iran…perhaps all of this is not as fishy as I think. But, it does beg the question: why does a government sitting on 10% of the world’s oil and possessed of optimal conditions for deployment of large-scale solar energy need to spend so much time, effort and money on nuclear research? Maybe the UAE is just that committed to renewable energy, maybe the leadership in that country is taking steps with the end-of-oil time horizon in mind. Who would think that US policy could be so forward-looking?
Still, there are big questions for US security interests: how do our dealings with the UAE take on so different a nuclear proliferation risk profile from our approaches to North Korea and Iran and their partnerships? We may embargo Iran and view their civil nuclear deal with Russia as a threat, but the UAE is an Iranian trading partner. They take a VERY different view of Iran’s civil program, as Congressman Ed Royce (R -CA) noted at the July hearing, quoting UAE’s Prime Minister caling the Iranian program “an internal matter…as long as our brothers in Iran continue to reassure the world that the program is peaceful.”
There is a lot to pick apart in that quote. How can Iranian statements thus far possibly be characterized as “reassurances?” What are the risks of a nuclear program – “peaceful” or not – in a country in as much political turmoil as Iran, where a new finger could be on the button tomorrow?
We can only hope that the Obama/Clinton teams working on this are asking the same questions, and many more. Right now though, the White House may be a little reluctant to put the brakes on a plan that is enjoying something they are rarely seeing: key Congressional support.
Photo courtesy of Masdar, shows Masdar City mock-up at UAE’s World Future Energy Summit in January 2009.