"This is a real counterexample to what Iran is doing," said the senior U.S. official Thursday. "We're seeking commitments from nations within the Middle East that they're going to rely on the markets for nuclear fuel."
By JAY SOLOMON
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration plans to sign its first nuclear-cooperation agreement with a Middle Eastern nation within the next few weeks, according to a senior U.S. official, raising concerns among congressional critics who say the deal could fuel nuclear proliferation in the region.
The proposed deal with the United Arab Emirates has attracted attention because the U.A.E.'s largest trading partner is Iran. The U.A.E. has served in the past as a transshipment point for technology with military applications headed to Iran.
The move could place President-elect Barack Obama in a political tight spot with a Middle East ally by forcing him to decide whether to push Congress to ratify the agreement. He hasn't taken an official position on the deal. An Obama spokesman declined to comment. The Bush administration has championed the nuclear agreement with the U.A.E. as a model for promoting peaceful nuclear energy while guarding against weapons proliferation.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, ranking Republican in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation this week that would set conditions before Congress could approve the agreement. It would require that the next president certify the U.A.E. has taken extensive measures to cut off the flow of financing and sensitive technologies into Iran.
The U.A.E. says its nuclear-power program will have extensive safeguards to protect against nuclear materials being diverted. It has pledged to purchase nuclear fuel for its reactors from outside suppliers, rather than developing its own fuel. It says it would store nuclear waste externally. Also, it has agreed to allow monitoring and snap inspections by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency.
In recent months, the U.A.E. signed agreements with two American engineering companies -- Thorium Power Ltd. of Virginia and CH2M Hill of Colorado -- to oversee the development of its nuclear-power program. The U.A.E. has also hired a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, William Travers, to help run the U.A.E.'s nuclear regulatory body.