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U.S./UAE Nuclear Deal Proponents and Opponents Missing One Element, Reform of U.S. Export Control Laws Missing

A proposed nuclear cooperation in the Middle East between the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) could establish an interesting precedent that impact U.S. security and commercial concerns in the region and beyond.  The Bush Administration penned the U.S.-UAE 123 Agreement during its last month in office.  It is now up to the Obama Administration to decide whether to refer the measure for Congressional approval within the required 90 days or simply let it stall and revisit the issue at a later date.

There are many individuals in the U.S. government and in the private sector who work day in and day out to ensure that sensitive information related to nuclear technology remains secure.  And while the proliferation of nuclear technology to Iran and other bad actors is one of the last things most Americans are paying attention to these days, they should (or at least the folks they elect to represent them in the Congress should do so).

The U.S.-UAE 123 Agreement has the potential to become another public relations disaster similar to the 2006 Dubai Ports World controversy when a rather odd coalition of the left and right coalesced and blocked a deal that would have allowed a UAE company to manage various sea ports in the U.S.  Dubai Ports opponents argued it would hurt U.S. national security and the Congress stepped in by passing legislation that, in part, updated the review processes of the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS).  It remains to be seen whether these reforms made in the heat of a political controversy will help strengthen U.S. national security.

On the surface, the U.S.-UAE 123 seems like a good deal for the U.S. and American companies.  The UAE needs additional resources of energy and nuclear energy is a cost-effective and clean energy option.  An ally of the U.S., the UAE has assisted the U.S. in the global war against radical Islamists, it is a strong trading partner of the U.S. in the region, and it is not a big fan of the Iranian mullahs.  The UAE does not have any nuclear capacity whatsoever, so if and when the 123 Agreement is approved, U.S. companies shall also benefit as contractors and advisors will be hired to assist in the new effort.   This means jobs for Americans.

So why the opposition from various sources in the Congress and on K Street?  Iran. 

For starters, despite the fact that Iran and UAE bicker about a whole variety of political issues, Iran remains the UAE’s largest trading partner.   There are also many Iranian businesses operating in the UAE including financial institutions sanctioned by the United States such as Bank Melli.  These and other activities that naturally arise from strong commercial relations between countries, and that would not be an issue but for Iran in this case, are exactly a cause of concern by Congressional and other opponents of the measure. 

It is not that the U.S. government, or Americans in general, do not trust the UAE, it is, by and large, a manifest distrust of the Iranian regime that drives the concern.   The Iranians are contributing to the death of U.S. soldiers and are a destabilizing influence in the Middle East.  It supports terrorism around the world, including in the Western Hemisphere.  And Iran wants a nuclear bomb. 

No matter the number of UAE assurances that it will be able to control the access to U.S. nuclear technology and know-how, unless there is another government in Tehran with a different mindset of how it views the world and its place in it, the danger will always exist that sensitive U.S. nuclear technology and know-how could find its way into the Iranian nuclear apparatus.  The latter is untenable.

If the Obama Administration can find common ground with Congressional opponents of the measure, and there is no public relations backlash as a result, what of U.S. export control laws and regulations?

Controlling the spread of sensitive U.S. technology, nuclear or otherwise, is very important.  However, the current regulatory structure we have in place today is rooted in the Cold War and much reform is needed.  Every Congress there is talk of reform, but it never seems to take hold.  

A primary concern by Congressional opponents is the transshipment of U.S. nuclear technology to Iran.   Opponents want the UAE to insure that our nuclear technology is not being illegally diverted to Iran or, later, stolen by the Iranians through espionage and other means once the systems have become operational.  With regards to transshipments, the UAE government claims it has taken steps to deal with this issue.  You can read more about it, here.

In 2007, the Government Accountablity Office published  “Nonproliferation: U.S. Efforts to Combat Nuclear Networks Need Better Data on Proliferation Risks and Program Results,” a report that look at efforts by the United States to impede nuclear proliferation networks that provide equipment to nuclear weapons development programs in countries such as Pakistan and Iran.  The report looked at efforts by the State Department to implement the Export Control and Related Border Assistance Security program (EXBS).

Started in 2003, EXBS helps other countries improve export control systems.  The program is supposed to take a regional and multilateral approach that helps harmonize national export control systems with international standards.   In the process, EXBS seeks to improve and faciliate information sharing among participating nations.  Close to $300 million U.S. taxpayer monies have been used in this program, including for efforts in the UAE.

How has the UAE done?  According to this GAO report U.S. taxpayers do not know:

State contractors performed assessments in 2004 for only two of the six countries in the scope of our review that received EXBS funding, Turkey and UAE.  According to a State official, these assessments were not useful for State’s purposes because the contractor provided the results of the evaluations but not the data that EXBS officials said would be necessary to measure the progress of these countries in improving their export control systems.

EXBS did not receive the information it needed to construct a baseline against which to evaluate the progress of these countries. State has contracted for future assessments to be used as a baseline for determining countries’ future progress.

This report is about a little over a year old and there may be new information available to the Congress about this issue.  If not, one can see why Congressional opponents of the Agreement are concerned about transferring U.S. nuclear technology to the UAE.   If we cannot get information we need from the UAE to ascertain if U.S. taxpayer monies have been well-invested in the region, why should we rush to hand over out nuclear technology and know-how?

If these deal was to go through, proponents and opponents of the measure should find common ground on reforming U.S. export control laws in manner consistent with new global realities.  If macro reform cannot be done, then it should be done on a piecemeal basis with agreements such as this one.

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