Very quietly, the United States and the United Arab Emirates have signed a deal that will allow the UAE to develop nuclear reactors and obtain nuclear fuel from the US, under the 123 Agreement framework. Under the agreement, the UAE, which is already a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), will be subjected to nuclear safeguards inspection from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and will forgo the right to enrich/reprocess spent Uranium fuel. The whole nuclear program of the UAE will apparently be under US management, pending IAEA approval.
Since its birth in December 1971, the UAE has experienced massive economic growth on account of its petroleum reserves. This initial economic growth gave rise to two main economic power centers in this federation of seven emirates — Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE and largest emirate by area, whose revenues are driven by oil, and Dubai, the most populous emirate, whose revenues are driven by trade and financial services.
Economic growth lead to investments in infrastructure and construction, resulting in the arrival of hoards of blue – and white collar workers, primarily from the Indian subcontinent, to fill the employment vacuum. This sustained population growth, particularly in Dubai, has forced the UAE to consider alternative sources of energy. By some estimates, UAE’s demand for electricity is likely to rise to 40,000 megawatts (MW) by 2020. However, UAE’s energy sector is projected to be capable of meeting only about 50% of this demand.
The 123 Agreement is yet to be ratified by Congress, and will still need to be approved by the President of a new US administration. Barack Obama has not publicly stated his views on the issue. The deal has already met with vociferous disapproval from members of Congress. Rep. Brad Sherman, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade subcommittee, said:
“Any (nuclear cooperation) agreement between the United States and the UAE should not be submitted to Congress until, at a minimum, the UAE has addressed the critical issue of transshipments and diversion of sensitive technologies to Iran.”
If that’s the Congressman’s line of thought, then this is yet another classic example of the kind of cluelessness that has come to typify the thinking of successive US administrations on matters concerning the Middle East. Indeed, Iran is the one country that can be counted on to get irked by the proposed deal. Relations between “Shi’a” Iran and “Sunni-Arab” UAE have always been icy.
A major bone of contention between the UAE and Iran is with regard to the Abu Musa and Lesser Tunb islands, unilaterally occupied by Iran, but claimed by the UAE. The Abu Musa archipelago lies within the strategic Straits of Hormuz corridor, an area vital to the petroleum driven economies of the Arabian Peninsula. In addition, as Anthony Cordesman points out, there are two specific areas of concern for Abu Dhabi — (a) the presence of a significant Iranian immigrant (potential “fifth column”) population in the UAE, and (b) the strategic proximity of Dubai and Sharjah to the old Iranian port-town of Bandar Abbas. The vulnerability of the northern emirates’ shipping channels to Iran’s airbase in Bandar Abbas is a source of worry for UAE’s rulers.
For its part, Iran can’t be too pleased with the cosiness exhibited smaller Arabian Peninsular countries like the UAE and Qatar towards the United States. US military bases in the UAE, like those in Jebel Ali and Al Dhafra, and UAE’s ambivalence towards the US invasion of Iraq can’t have helped matters much either.
This nuclear deal is a bad idea — not because of an alleged UAE-Iran nexus, but because the UAE will be susceptible to an Iranian military assault either if Iran-UAE relations deteriorate, or if Iran has its back to the wall in any future US-Iran military confrontation. The UAE can ill afford be in a military conflict with Iran — the repercussions will be felt far beyond the region, given that expatriates make up about 80% of the total population of the UAE.
Allowing the accumulation of nuclear material in a politically and militarily weak country situated in the most unstable region on earth, and in the proximity and cross-hairs of Iran, is foolish. To think that this will impress upon Iran the virtues of towing Washington’s line with regard to nuclear technology is an exercise in naiveté. Far from making the UAE politically and strategically more secure, the deal will prove to be an albatross around Abu Dhabi’s neck.