Tuesday, June 16, 2009

US-UAE Nuclear Deal

The US-UAE Nuclear Deal: Turning the Straight of Hormuz into a Nuclear Tijuana?

Somehow government bureaucracies manage to suck all the intrigue out of their reports, turning would-be political thrillers into sterile dossiers full of euphemisms and obscure acronyms. The US Bureau of Industry and Security, for example, produces a monthly “Major Case” list that with a little spicing up might draw in some readers from the ranks of the government foreign policy elite. This would be a great advantage since the Bush Administration officials who signed a deal to build a nuclear reactor in the UAE seem to have missed the fact that the small Gulf nation is a major transshipment point for illicit trade with Iran, the international community’s current non-proliferation cause célèbre. The Emirates is mentioned in ten of the department’s pending cases for May 2009: nine of these for acting as a way station for shipments of sensitive technologies and dual-use items to Iran (destination number ten is Iraq, not exactly a comforting anomaly). The agreement may be a good way of rewarding the UAE for not joining its neighbors Oman and Qatar in seeking a unilateral rapprochement with Iran and bypassing the US in regional peace initiatives (moves that not only brought the two gulf nations closer to Syria but also weakened the credibility of former regional heavyweights and US-allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia). But is nuclear technology an appropriate carrot in a region that IAEA Chief Muhammad El-Baradei last week called a “ticking bomb”? The problem, El-Baradei insists, is with the current NPT regime, which has allowed upwards of 20 countries to develop civilian nuclear programs that could be weaponized in relatively short order. One part of re-dressing this failure, he told the UK Guardian, is to “ensure that the gaps that might exist for misuse of that technology is plugged.” It seems this 11th hour Bush deal has the potential to make the UAE one of the biggest “gaps,” turning the Straight of Hormuz into a nuclear smuggling thoroughfare.
There is no hard evidence that the governing royals are implicated in these BIS smuggling cases, but there is no real evidence to the contrary either. Oman and Qatar, both of whom have strong political and economic ties with Iran, do not appear in the case log at all, challenging the supposition that the UAE’s proximity to Iran makes it prone to abuse by privateers. And the UAE has long been criticized for its de facto policy of allowing cheap imports from Asia to be relabeled in the UAE to take advantage of the Arab Free Trade Area, a policy that the regime’s allies no doubt benefit from quite handsomely. The institutions that have grown up to accommodate and facilitate these smuggling rings will be difficult to dismantle, and may only be driven further underground by government efforts to do so. This may press many smugglers and traffickers of the more mundane variety to seek out opportunities to work in higher-value markets such as those for nuclear technologies. The UAE surely has legitimate security concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, but if used within the legal bounds of the US deal, the civilian technology involved in this transfer would not magically make them impervious to an attack. They would have to use this technology transfer as a starting point to engage in their own clandestine nuclear weapons program, a policy contradiction made all the more ludicrous by the fact that the UAE is not exactly strapped for energy resources as it sits on nearly 100 billion barrels of oil.
Although the deal was concluded by the Bush Administration, it must still be approved by Congress, which requires the Obama Administration to submit the deal for consideration. Under different circumstances the UAE case might be strong: it contributed to establishing an IAEA administered nuclear fuel bank, an important step in removing state-control of nuclear fuel; it is a strong US-ally and it has invested heavily in alternative energies. However, recent events caution against the deal. Particularly notable is the gruesome 45-minute tape that shows Sheikh Issa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, brother of the UAE Crown Prince, torturing a grain merchant accused of pilfering $5,000 worth of product. Although disturbing, the real smoking gun of the tape is the presence of a uniformed Emirati police officer who actually takes part in the torture. If the legal arms of the state are under such complete tutelage of the royal family, is it not reasonable to assume that many of the smugglers are as well? The Wall Street Journal reported that both Westinghouse and General Electric are vying for the reactor contract. GE for one has substantial financial interests tied up with the UAE Royals, including a recently launched partnership with Mubadala Development Company, a venture capital group backed by the Crown Prince and his full-brothers including, you guessed it, Sheikh Issa from the torture tapes. For these and a host of other reasons, the US deal is unlikely to garner the Obama Administration much respect from the Arab world outside the Emirates, which is to say about 99% of the region’s population.
Regional realities and the lessons of history also advise against the deal. Many states have expressed plans to establish civilian nuclear programs, including Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. If the US aids the UAE in their program, what is to stop the rest of the region from demanding similar concessions in exchange for cooperation on regional peace deals and other joint efforts? The fact that these states may not be openly pursuing weaponized versions of these programs is of little comfort, especially given the tendency for regional political realities to shift. And by “shift” I do not mean peaceful leadership changeover so much as the US tendency to supply a given strongman with sufficient means to exterminate millions of people only to discover some years down the road that the individual has become politically unpalatable. Implementing such policy reversals once the region has been nuclearized will make disarming Saddam Hussein look like a leisurely stroll in the dessert. Crude continental balance-of-power politics once compelled France to supply sensitive nuclear assistance to Israel, Pakistan and Egypt and led Italy and Germany to assist Iraq with its program while the British supplied dual-use items; unconfirmed cases include German assistance to the apartheid government in South Africa, and Italian assistance to Argentina. This menace of regional tensions is again implicated in the case of the UAE, partly due to Bush-era tactics that divided the region into those who were “with us” or “with the terrorists.” However this time the balancing takes place in a global environment made infinitely more complex by previous generations of proliferation. Sandwiched between Iran and Saudi Arabia, will the Emiratis prove more reliable non-proliferators than the states of Western Europe? I give it roughly a snowball’s chance in Dubai.

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