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U.S. Plans to Sign Nuclear Pact With U.A.E.; Bush Readies Other Pacts for ME Countries
The Bush administration plans to sign its first nuclear-cooperation agreement with a Middle Eastern nation within the next few weeks, according to a senior U.S. official, raising concerns among congressional critics who say the deal could fuel nuclear proliferation in the region.
The proposed deal with the United Arab Emirates has attracted attention because the U.A.E.'s largest trading partner is Iran. The U.A.E. has served in the past as a transshipment point for technology with military applications headed to Iran.
The move could place President-elect Barack Obama in a political tight spot with a Middle East ally by forcing him to decide whether to push Congress to ratify the agreement. He hasn't taken an official position on the deal. An Obama spokesman declined to comment. The Bush administration has championed the nuclear agreement with the U.A.E. as a model for promoting peaceful nuclear energy while guarding against weapons proliferation.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, ranking Republican in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation this week that would set conditions before Congress could approve the agreement. It would require that the next president certify the U.A.E. has taken extensive measures to cut off the flow of financing and sensitive technologies into Iran.
The U.A.E. says its nuclear-power program will have extensive safeguards to protect against nuclear materials being diverted. It has pledged to purchase nuclear fuel for its reactors from outside suppliers, rather than developing its own fuel. It says it would store nuclear waste externally. Also, it has agreed to allow monitoring and snap inspections by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency.
In recent months, the U.A.E. signed agreements with two American engineering companies -- Thorium Power Ltd. of Virginia and CH2M Hill of Colorado -- to oversee the development of its nuclear-power program. The U.A.E. has also hired a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, William Travers, to help run the U.A.E.'s nuclear regulatory body.
"This is a real counterexample to what Iran is doing," said the senior U.S. official Thursday. "We're seeking commitments from nations within the Middle East that they're going to rely on the markets for nuclear fuel."
The Bush administration also is working on nuclear-cooperation agreements with the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain. The pacts require Washington to share nuclear fuels, technologies and know-how on the condition that the countries commit to abiding by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and IAEA safeguards.
The U.A.E. sits on some of the world's largest energy reserves, but its leaders say the country's natural-gas resources are inadequate to match rising demand. "We have determined that nuclear energy is an option the U.A.E. cannot afford to ignore," said Hamad Ali Al Ka'abi, the head of the U.A.E.'s nuclear program, in an interview earlier this year.
The Bush administration initially hoped to sign the nuclear accord with the U.A.E. last month, when Abu Dhabi's crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, met President George W. Bush at Camp David, according to people familiar with the visit.
U.A.E. officials decided to delay the official signing over uncertainties about Mr. Obama's position and possible negative reaction from Congress, according to these officials. In 2006, the U.A.E.'s state-owned DP World had to scrap a plan to purchase the U.S. port holdings of Britain's P&O because of opposition in Congress.
The nuclear trafficking network run by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan used Dubai in the U.A.E. as one of its major bases, according to investigations of the Khan network. U.S. officials, however, say the U.A.E. has taken major steps to better manage its export controls and guard against money laundering.