A nuclear-powered Middle East is good for U.S.


Should the United States sell advanced civilian nuclear reactors to a Middle East country that doesn’t seem to need them? A country that can keep pumping oil for the next 100 years, that has a pipeline to a vast natural-gas field next door, and that has enough desert for a solar-panel array of biblical proportions?

No, it’s not Iran. It’s the United Arab Emirates proposing to build the safest nuclear-generating program money can buy. It intends to purchase third-generation nuclear reactors from France, the United States, South Korea, or Japan to power its glittering desert cities and use the surplus heat to desalinate its drinking water at the same time. And it’s in the U.S. national interest to help the Emirates do it, as counterintuitive as that may seem to the American right wing, the green wing, or nonproliferation hawks.

Why? First, because the United States could not stop the emirates from proceeding even if it wanted to. The Emirates has joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and an alphabet soup of other international covenants aimed at stopping proliferation and trafficking. All Congress could stop would be U.S. companies competing for the lucrative contracts.

Second, the Emirates is a friendly Arab nation fighting alongside NATO in Afghanistan. It soaked up $11.6 billion worth of U.S. exports in 2007, and it has been investing in American companies, including a $7.5 billion stake in Citigroup. It hosts a U.S. Air Force base. And its Sunni rulers are, if anything, even more spooked than we are by the prospect of a hegemonic, nuclear-armed Iran.

But most important, the United States should endorse and assist the Emirates because its proposal could serve as a model to Iran and other countries for how to build an environmentally friendly civilian nuclear plant that doesn’t make the world conclude that your real goal is a nuclear bomb.

There is, of course, ample cause for concern. Iran has opened its fuel-enrichment plant in Natanz, allegedly to fuel a civilian reactor in Bushehr, which is scheduled to begin operation this year.

Iran’s neighbors fear not only nuclear weapons but the potential fallout from an accident. Kuwaiti officials point out that Bushehr is in earthquake territory, fewer than 200 miles from Kuwait City. They have reminded the Iranians of Chernobyl and noted that the winds tend to blow counterclockwise across the Persian Gulf — toward them.

The Emirates model isn’t foolproof; cheating and accidents are always possible. But it’s as safe as a nuclear program can be.

In its waning days, former President George W. Bush’s administration signed a civilian nuclear cooperation deal with the Emirates. The deal requires approval from Congress, and the Emirates is lobbying to have it taken up in May. President Obama’s administration should push for quick approval.

The most interesting aspect of the Emirates plan is what it doesn’t do. To eliminate the risk of nuclear diversion, Abu Dhabi has decided to “forgo the fuel cycle” — it will buy its reactor fuel from abroad and return the spent fuel for reprocessing instead of enriching its own. During European-led negotiations with Iran, Russia offered Iran a similar deal. Tehran refused, insisting on its own enrichment technology.

Busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States lacks the will and wherewithal to force Iran to forswear the bomb, and sanctions haven’t cowed Tehran. The only realistic way to deter Iran is to offer something it might genuinely want. Would advanced nuclear energy, normalized relations with the United States, an end to sanctions, and less tension with its neighbors be enough to interest Tehran? Would the Iranians accept a deal from Obama that they rejected from Russia? Is there anything they want more than to build a bomb?

Perhaps not. But if Tehran refused, it would lose whatever credibility remains in its claim that its nuclear ambitions are purely peaceful. It also would have to stop railing that the United States seeks to keep it technologically backward and excluded from the elite nuclear club.

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