On May 20th, the Obama Administration sent an Agreement for Nuclear Cooperation with the United Arab Emirates to the US Congress for review. This step was both routine and significant.
Known as "123 Agreements" in reference to the relevant provision of U.S. Atomic Energy Act, these are routine frameworks for international nuclear commerce. They permit normal nuclear energy-related commerce to go forward without a license for each individual transaction. Sensitive items still require a license.
The United States has agreements with more than 20 countries, and the text is highly standardized. Such countries include Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, and Morocco. These agreements -- particularly in light of potential risk created by the predicted nuclear energy renaissance -- have become important to reinforcing the worldwide nonproliferation regime and protecting US security. They help the United States more effectively carry out its obligation under Article IV of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to share peaceful nuclear technology with NPT non-nuclear weapon states.
While routine on the one hand, this Agreement is also significant because it codifies unprecedented steps the UAE is taking to prevent proliferation. It also enables the United States to send an important message to the region.
The 123 Agreement between the United States and the UAE is quite similar in language to the many that are now in force. But it goes a significant step beyond. For many years, the United States -- spurred by the Iranian example of seeking nuclear weapons by developing fuel-cycle capabilities from within the NPT -- has been urging NPT non-nuclear weapon states to forgo sensitive elements of the nuclear fuel cycle, particularly uranium enrichment and spent fuel plutonium reprocessing, and allow these services to be managed on an international basis. The new US-UAE 123 Agreement is the first such agreement to instill this approach. The Agreement explicitly states that the UAE has decided never to engage in uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing for plutonium, and if this decision is ever changed, the United States can withdraw from the Agreement. The Bush Administration negotiated the original agreement, with even stronger wording from the Obama Administration. By means of this agreement the UAE policy of foreswearing uranium enrichment and reprocessing for plutonium has been converted into an international legal obligation in the most binding possible form in a bi-lateral nuclear agreement. The agreement thereby becomes a significant vehicle for assuring peaceful nuclear energy. Thus, contrary to assertions by certain commentators, when this 123 Agreement enters into force, the UAE could change its policy on enrichment and reprocessing only by violating international law.
This is a major step forward for non-proliferation and a major rebuke for Iran. It is the type of agreement that the United States should celebrate now and insist upon in the future.
Furthermore, the United States can hold this agreement in its diplomatic arsenal to give Iran a set of rules for nuclear commerce that ensure transparency and nonproliferation. Indeed, it is the objective of the UAE that its policy, as reflected in the Agreement, serve as a model for other states. This is realistic given the UAE's leadership role in the region and beyond.
A few members of Congress have expressed concern about the Agreement. However, it would be a major blow to US nonproliferation policy if the United States did not go forward. And it would support the Iranian charge that the United States wants to prevent Middle Eastern states from access to peaceful nuclear energy. These outcomes would be a negative for U.S. national security. The two US Administrations involved in negotiating the agreement have recognized this, and the US Congress should support it as well.
To be clear, not all such agreements have been routine. Three recent cases have been controversial: China, Russia, and India. But all three involved states with existing nuclear weapons technology and created an altogether different set of issues to assess.
The UAE and the U.S. are close allies and share many economic and security interests. The UAE has troops in Afghanistan, side-by-side with NATO and the U.S. -- the only Arab country to take this step. More U.S. naval vessels visit UAE ports than any other foreign port. This nuclear energy program is vital to the UAE and essential to its national interest. They have taken an unprecedented and peaceful position on nonproliferation which strongly supports US interests. They are one of the most prominent moderate voices in the Middle East. The U.S.-UAE 123 Agreement will strengthen the economy and the security of both the United States and the United Arab Emirates and is overwhelmingly in the interest of the United States. Ambassador Thomas Graham; is a former Special Representative of the President for Arms Control, Non Proliferation and Disarmament. He participated in a senior role in every major arms control, and non proliferation negotiation in which the United States took part from 1970-1997 and is currently Executive Chairman of Thorium Power Ltd. which plays an advisory role to the UAE energy program.