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Story Publication logo February 3, 2012

The Persian Gulf's Nuclear Choice

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U.S. officials believe Iran’s ongoing progress towards a nuclear weapon is pushing Saudi Arabia...

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Model nuclear reactor: the U.A.E. has promised that its nuclear ambitions are strictly civilian. Image by Yochi Dreazen. United Arab Emirates, 2012.

The United Arab Emirates, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, is a land of firsts. Dubai, its richest city, has the first indoor ski slope and the first "seven star" luxury hotel. Abu Dhabi, its capital, has the first roller coaster capable of traveling from zero to 60 mph in less than five seconds; now it's building the first branch of the Louvre Museum outside of France.

Here at Braka, a windswept patch of desert 167 miles west of Abu Dhabi, a very different kind of first is taking shape. With American support, the Emirati government is building the Arab world's first—and, for the moment, only—nuclear-power plant. On a recent afternoon, workers in hard hats and safety vests used yellow bulldozers to excavate deep pits, depositing the earth into a fleet of open-backed trucks. Other workers cut dirt roads into the sand and put the finishing touches on a campus of two-story office buildings and dormitories. New creature comforts for thousands of employees are coming online. The South Korean managers are golf fanatics, so the site has an outdoor driving range near the soccer pitch put in for the Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese construction workers. Several dining rooms serve kimchi and other Korean staples produced on-site by a team of imported chefs. A large red flag, flapping gently in the wind, marks the spot where the plant's nuclear reactor will sit.

Talk of Middle Eastern nuclear energy typically sets off alarm bells in Washington, Jerusalem, and elsewhere, because a nation with a civilian program could theoretically become a nation with a nuclear weapon. The United States and its allies have slapped economic sanctions on Tehran to prevent such a thing; officials here and around the Persian Gulf hope that the Americans or the Israelis will launch air strikes to destroy Iran's facilities before the year is out.

The nuclear plant at Braka is a different story. The U.A.E. has already volunteered not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel, the steps necessary to build a weapon. In exchange for this vow, Washington is giving technical advice, clearing the way for Emirati nuclear engineers to study at American universities, and allowing U.S. firms like Westinghouse to build Emirati plants. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which shares the American belief that Iran is building a nuclear bomb, says that the U.A.E.'s plans are transparent and civilian. The Braka plant, in other words, isn't just a way to cut fossil-fuel use. It is meant to be an object lesson for Iran and every other country in the region: Come clean; if your program is verifiably peaceful, we will support you.

The Americans who helped set up Braka hope that others are watching. The Emiratis, of course, are one target: Seeing how the international community accepts their civilian plan, they should never want to weaponize it. The Saudis are the more important target for this message. Iran is their enemy, and it could soon have a nuke. Now Saudi Arabia is planning its own nuclear program, and it will have to decide what kind. Tehran offers one model; Abu Dhabi, another. One path could keep nations in the world's most volatile region from chasing the world's most dangerous weapons; the other could trigger an Arab nuclear-arms race as Middle East nations work to build—or buy—nuclear bombs of their own.

The Coming Arms Race?

Iran's Shiite government has long vied with the Sunni rulers of wealthy Gulf nations for regional influence and control. Their shadow conflict is picking up steam as Iran closes in on a nuke. In Palestine, Gulf countries support the moderate government in the West Bank, while Tehran backs Hamas in Gaza. When Shiites launched pro-democracy protests last fall in Sunni-governed Bahrain, Saudi Arabia accused Iran of fomenting the unrest and sent troops to prevent a pro-Iranian Shiite takeover by quashing the uprising. Tehran funnels money, weapons, and sophisticated eavesdropping equipment to the embattled Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, Iran's strongest Arab ally, while Gulf states offer similar support to the rebels working to oust him. Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Israel share intelligence about Iran's nuclear facilities, officials with direct knowledge of the talks say.

Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a move that would prevent the Persian Gulf nations from exporting oil. Some analysts believe that the Gulf states would allow Israeli warplanes to refuel on their territory before launching strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Gulf officials say they aren't worried that Tehran would attack with a nuclear warhead or give one to a terrorist group. Instead, they fear that nukes would allow Iran to intervene in neighboring countries with impunity, confident that Arab governments wouldn't risk pushing back too strongly. If more riots break out in Bahrain, for instance, Saudi Arabia would have to think twice about sending troops in to crush the Shiite protests.

What havoc could Tehran wreak? Its most lucrative export is oil, but it has far less than Saudi Arabia and other nations. That means Iran can't boost revenue by increasing production; it can only hope to raise the price of oil or to limit its supply—two potential nightmares for Gulf officials. Under one scenario, a nuclear-armed Iran would dictate oil quotas and prices by implicitly threatening any country that disobeyed its wishes. In an even scarier scenario, tensions between the two sides could rise so sharply that Tehran would attack Arab refineries. Iran's air force possesses more than enough conventional weapons to destroy the multibillion-dollar facilities, and its nuclear bomb would make Gulf states afraid to strike back.

Gulf officials pondering a nuclear future have already decided that Iran's program is designed to build a bomb. The IAEA agrees the evidence points in that direction, and in January, Tehran disclosed the existence of a facility that can enrich uranium to 20 percent, an important milestone toward producing weapons-grade matériel. While the United Arab Emirates is building its plants from cheap, off-the-shelf technology, Iran is cobbling together more-powerful reactors with expensive components from Germany, Russia, and Pakistan. It is also building separate sites for enriching uranium and reprocessing spent fuel, the necessary steps to create a nuke. And Iran is testing long-range missiles with mock payloads that are the exact shape, size, and weight of a nuclear warhead, according to Western intelligence services.

Gulf nations are racing to prepare for such an eventuality. The U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia have have become two of the world's largest weapons buyers, spending tens of billions of dollars in recent years to expand the size and skill of their armed forces. The U.A.E. has purchased roughly $20 billion of American machines, including F-16s, Apache helicopters, and Patriot missile-defense systems. Late last year, the Pentagon said it would clear the way to sell to the U.A.E. a $7 billion Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, the most-advanced missile-defense system in the American arsenal. It was the first time that Washington allowed a foreign country to buy a THAAD system, which is capable of protecting a broad swath of territory rather than a single site.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, recently received permission to acquire 84 next-generation F-15s and to upgrade another 70. The $29.4 billion deal is the largest single weapons sale in U.S. history. Riyadh is also negotiating with the Pentagon to buy up to a dozen next-generation Navy vessels equipped with the Aegis missile-defense system, which can be used to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles; such a purchase would cost at least $10 billion more. "Missile defense is a concern of every country in that region," said Dennis Cavin, a retired three-star Army general who now serves as the vice president of business development at Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-16s, Patriots, and THAAD systems. "It's on their minds every day."

Out of public view, the United States is working with Gulf monarchies to build a regional missile-defense shield, according to retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who was the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until last year. It will function as a hub-and-spoke system, with radar arrays in each nation funneling information to a central mainframe. Each country will then have access to all of the information gathered by its neighbors. The system will be able to detect an incoming Iranian missile and alert the nation best positioned to shoot it down. Cartwright said that components are already being installed, but he declined to say when the system will be ready. In a first for the region, radar information collected by the Gulf states will be shared with Israel. The system will be "capable of doing what no individual country can do in terms of targeting a missile," he said.

No matter how well the new system works, it may not be enough to prevent Saudi Arabia from trying to build—or purchase—a nuclear weapon of its own in response to the completion of an Iranian bomb. In December, Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief, told a Gulf security forum in Riyadh, "It is our duty towards our nation and people to consider all possible options, including [acquiring] these weapons." Riyadh has held sporadic negotiations with Pakistan about buying fissile material and the other components to quickly assemble a bomb, according to a Western intelligence official who asked not to be named. A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's bomb, visited Saudi Arabia on at least two occasions, and senior Saudi officials paid well-publicized visits to Khan's lab before his 2004 arrest on proliferation charges. The talks with Pakistan appear to have resumed in recent months, the official said.

If they go anywhere, Western intelligence officials fear the worst: A Saudi nuclear program could lead Egypt—a traditional Saudi rival—to launch a nuclear effort of its own. That could induce Turkey, a rising power in the region, to keep pace with its Iranian, Israeli, and Arab neighbors. The Arab Spring showed that the Middle East is home to some of the most fragile governments in the world; what happens if a nuclear-armed government collapses? "Introducing nuclear arms into the Mideast would be like being blindfolded and then trying to find a cliff," Cartwright said. "It certainly would be my No. 1 proliferation concern globally. It would be extremely, extreme-ly dangerous."

Building Braka

When Mohamed al-Hammadi was growing up in Abu Dhabi 30 years ago, the only paved road stretched from the city's tiny airport to a waterfront corniche. Hammadi, the chief executive of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp., still lives in his family's small house in downtown Abu Dhabi, but the city around him is unrecognizable. It has become a bustling metropolis of skyscrapers, luxury hotels, and tourist attractions. Dubai, Abu Dhabi's flashier cousin, has expanded even more dramatically. It has the tallest skyscraper on Earth and an indoor ski slope.

With temperatures hovering around 100 degrees much of the year, the Emirates need a tremendous amount of energy for indoor climate control. The country currently generates most of its electricity from natural gas imported from neighboring Qatar, but a government study in 2006 concluded that this will not suffice to meet projected demand. "The U.A.E. wanted to fill that gap with something that is environmentally responsible, sustainable, has security of supply, and is economically viable," Hammadi said at ENEC's office in downtown Abu Dhabi. "We looked at coal, but it's environmentally harmful, and importing it every day past our neighbors in Iran didn't seem very practical."

The Emirati government instead chose nuclear energy, which is relatively inexpensive to produce and causes little pollution. It formally launched its nuclear push in 2008, ultimately signing a $20 billion deal with KEPCO, one of the world's largest builders of nuclear facilities, to construct four reactors. Westinghouse is working with the South Korean firm and expects to make at least $1 billion from the deal. When the four plants are operational in 2020, Hammadi said, the facilities will supply 25 percent of Abu Dhabi's energy needs and roughly 12 percent of the country's total supply.

From the start, the Emirati government has worked hard to reassure Washington and its allies that its nuclear program would be unlike Iran's. ENEC's lobby is decorated with a scale model of a reactor planned for Braka; the company has signed all of the IAEA's protocols on nonproliferation and promised to open its facilities to random inspections. Its advisory board is chaired by Hans Blix, the former head of the IAEA. Most importantly, the country has voluntarily agreed to forgo the two steps—enriching its own uranium or reprocessing spent fuel—necessary to build a bomb. "Our program could literally not be used in the creation of a nuclear-yield device," says David Scott, who served as the National Security Council's director for the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa during the George W. Bush administration and now works as a senior adviser to Abu Dhabi's crown prince. In exchange for all these pledges, the Bush administration signed during its final week in office an agreement with the U.A.E. to clear the way for American firms to assist the fledgling program; the deal, which didn't require congressional approval, went into effect in 2009.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, however, were more skittish: They pointed to Dubai's centrality in Khan's smuggling network. Khan and his associates had maintained bank accounts and apartments there, which they used for meetings with Iranians and others seeking nuclear technology. Khan considered Dubai to be so safe a base that he even contemplated building a plant in the emirate to manufacture enrichment centrifuges. He later told Pakistani investigators that both Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. had asked him to move to their countries to help jump-start potential nuclear programs. The head of the Emirati armed forces offered "me U.A.E. nationality many times together with a luxurious villa," Khan wrote in a confession to Pakistani authorities. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, then the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in May 2009 during a congressional review of the agreement: "The U.A.E.'s long history as a conduit for Iran's nuclear program and its failure to fully implement effective export controls … make this agreement a dangerous precedent."

Emiratis say they've changed. Between 2006 and 2009, local law-enforcement agencies shut down 40 Iranian organizations based in the U.A.E. that were thought to be trafficking banned goods or violating export restrictions. In the years since the deal was struck, the United Arab Emirates has deepened its relationship with the IAEA and set up a nuclear-regulatory agency that signs off on each stage of construction at Braka. It's chaired by William Travers, who ran the day-to-day operations of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the early 2000s before taking a high-ranking job with the IAEA. ENEC and the regulator both answer to the Emirati government, but Travers says that his agency operates independently and free of government interference. "I didn't come here to be a rubber stamp," he said. Ros-Lehtinen's aides say that most of her concerns about the U.A.E. program have been addressed.

The Emirati government is also working to ensure that Braka will be safe from attack. It's Critical National Infrastructure Authority, the agency that protects oil refineries and drilling platforms, will be responsible for guarding the nuclear facilities. CNIA's director, Staff Maj. Gen. Faris al-Mazrouei, says that his agency will station armed military personnel at the entrances to Braka, build a high wall to prevent infiltration, and use boats to guard against maritime attacks. "We understand that we are living in a dangerous area, so we leave nothing to chance," he said in his office at an air force base in Abu Dhabi. Still, there is no such thing as perfect security, and Western officials worry that if terrorists breach Braka's defenses, they could steal enough uranium for a dirty bomb. An Iranian bombardment, too, could destroy the reactors and trigger a radiation leak.

Dark Clouds

Even with all of Abu Dhabi's assurances, supporting its agenda entails a big risk. Nuclear programs are peaceful only so long as their managers want them to be. Graham Allison, a proliferation expert at Harvard University, says that the U.A.E. is a "poster child for peaceful civilian nuclear energy" but that, nevertheless, it could one day decide that the existential threat from Iran required it to seek a bomb of its own. Unlike its neighbors, it wouldn't have to scour the black market for a weapon; its growing nuclear expertise could help it build one. "If developing nuclear weapons is like climbing a mountain, the U.A.E. will soon reach the first big plateau," Allison said. "As a result of its peaceful nuclear program, the country will end up with a cadre of nuclear physicists, nuclear engineers, nuclear facilities, and people with basic nuclear know-how."

Still, weaponizing a civilian nuclear program is extraordinarily difficult, even for a country as rich as the United Arab Emirates. There are two ways to build a bomb: reprocess spent fuel to isolate plutonium, or enrich uranium by spinning it in centrifuges until it is 90 percent pure U-235. The U.A.E. has already agreed to forsake both steps. Switching course would require Abu Dhabi to expel IAEA inspectors, risk a rupture with the United States (which is desperate to prevent an Arab nuclear arms race), and spend tens of billions of dollars building enrichment or reprocessing facilities. Both solutions would require facilities so large that they would be extremely difficult to hide—and so dangerous to oper-ate that workers would die from radiation poisoning just seconds after any kind of accidental exposure. "It's not something you could just to do in the backyard," said Arthur Motta, a professor of nuclear engineering at Penn State University. "You're talking about a major, time-intensive, and incredibly costly undertaking."

If the U.A.E. decided it needed some form of radiological weapon, its best bet would be to use its uranium to make a dirty bomb—a device that employs conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material. A dirty bomb isn't powerful enough to level a city, but it could render parts of it uninhabitable for decades. Scott, the U.A.E. adviser, said that the country's voluntary promise to forgo both reprocessing and enrichment means that "nothing we have would be of interest to a country that wanted to build a nuclear bomb." He acknowledged that Emirati uranium could theoretically be used to build a dirty bomb but stressed that Abu Dhabi was not even considering it.

ENEC, the nuclear utility, expects to get formal permission from the U.A.E.'s nuclear regulator to begin building reactors this summer. The current workforce of 2,000 will quintuple between now and 2017, when the first nuclear reactor will be completed. The other three should be fully operational by 2020. Eight years is a long time, and it's hard to know what the future holds in the Middle East. For now, the U.A.E. has decided on a civilian nuclear program, Iran a weaponized one. The rest of the region will soon have to choose which path to follow.


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