The United States and the United Arab Emirates, the UAE, signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement on Thursday as the Bush administration nears the end of its term. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended the deal amid criticism from Congress that it could fuel nuclear competition in the Persian Gulf.
The accord was signed with less than a week to go for the Bush administration. But officials say it had been long under negotiation and not a last-minute action. They pointed out that, in any case, it will have to be reviewed by Congress after President Bush leaves office.
The agreement, signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdallah bin-Zayed al-Nahyan, is similar to the nuclear cooperation deal completed by the United States and India earlier this year.
The United States will allow the Gulf state to buy American nuclear power equipment, technology and fuel. The UAE, a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory, agrees, in turn, to open its nuclear facilities to full international inspections and not produce its own reactor fuel.
U.S. officials have framed the agreement as a commendable example for other Arab states in the face of Iran's uranium enrichment program, which they say is weapons related.
At the signing ceremony, Rice stressed that theme, saying the UAE's decision is a "powerful and timely model" for the rest of the region.
"We're here to sign this as a tangible expression of the United States' desire for active cooperation with states in the Middle East and around the world to meet their energy needs as in a manner that is consistent with the highest standards of safety and security and non-proliferation," said Condoleezza Rice.
Rice stressed that the deal means the UAE will pursue nuclear power through the import of reactor fuel and not by acquiring expensive and sensitive fuel-cycle technology such as uranium enrichment and reprocessing, as in the case of Iran.
UAE Foreign Minister al-Nahyan said the agreement takes cooperation between the United States and his country to a new level, and that its pending nuclear program is peaceful and aimed at providing for energy needs as its considerable oil and gas resources diminish.
"The UAE has been quite transparent about its nuclear, peaceful, needs," said Sheikh Abdallah bin-Zayed al-Nahyan. "We are a country that is very rich in its oil and gas, but we do look forward that we have a program, a nuclear peaceful program, that could sustain our future needs. As you've been seeing in the last few years, we've been growing rapidly. We are proud that we are the United States' largest trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa."
President-elect Barack Obama's incoming administration has not taken a position on the agreement. But the UAE minister said he was confident that Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton will follow Secretary Rice's "footsteps and advice" with regard to policy toward the Persian Gulf country.
Some members of Congress have expressed concern about the U.S.-UAE nuclear accord, given that country's history as a major trading partner of Iran and perceived danger that nuclear technology provided by the United States might find its way to that country.
U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced legislation to hold up the UAE accord until it provides guarantees that it is assisting U.S. efforts to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Democratic Committee Chairman Howard Berman has promised rigid scrutiny of the new agreement.