By Yoel Guzansky
The Hill, March 24, 2017 - What the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Washington said earlier this week in a panel discussion on the Iranian nuclear deal should attract the administration’s appropriate attention.
Yousef al-Otaiba stated in a Carnegie conference in Washington, D.C. that the UAE is not pleased with its nuclear compact. Iran got a better nuclear deal than us, he said, and "it continues to keep its uranium enrichment program, while we made a commitment to forgo uranium enrichment," suggesting that others in the Middle East might want the same uranium enrichment capability Iran has.
The UAE will soon be the first Arab state with a civilian nuclear program. The country’s first of four reactors is scheduled to be operational in a few months, barring any delays.
Besides Iran and the UAE, four other Middle Eastern countries are in different stages of their own independent nuclear program — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. It is unclear if this nuclear enthusiasm is driven more by a need to meet energy demands or concerns with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Since the nuclear deal permits Iran to pursue unrestricted uranium enrichment in the future, other countries in the region have justification for their own enrichment programs. Thus far, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have resisted U.S. pressure and insisted on leaving their uranium enrichment option open.
Inter-Arab competition also play its part. The Saudis don’t want to be "one-upped" by the UAE, so they too embarked on a very ambitious nuclear plan involving no fewer than 16 nuclear reactors.
Officials in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital city, announced they will select the nuclear plant site "very soon," and sent nuclear experts for training in other countries.
The kingdom also signed nuclear cooperation agreements with South Korea, Russia and, last week, a third nuclear agreement with China, this time on the feasibility of constructing high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGRs) in the kingdom.
Al-Otaiba, who is close to his country’s ruler — Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed — already indicated in 2015 that his country might re-evaluate its position on domestic enrichment, and that it no longer felt bound by its agreement with the United States.
"Your worst enemy has achieved this right to enrich," he told California Congressman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) in a telephone call. "It’s a right to enrich now that your friends are going to want, too, and we won’t be the only one."
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if it remains intact, buys Iran’s Arab neighbors roughly a decade in which they can continue with their nascent nuclear push to be better prepared. In the long-term, those nuclear programs can reduce the costs associated with developing military programs.
To be sure, it would not serve the UAE’s interest to renegotiate its nonproliferation obligations any time soon. Doing so would only endanger the completion of its nuclear program.
There is also the question of whether the JCPOA will remain intact under President Trump, given his pledge to scrap the deal or, at the very least, impose new sanctions that might push Iran to walk away from the pact.
An actual decision by Arab countries to opt for nuclear weapons depends primarily on Washington’s and Tehran’s compliance with the JCPOA and the degree to which the U.S. is attentive to its ally’s security concerns.
In any case, Iran’s Arab neighbors that are demanding to match Iran’s nuclear capability will likely continue to develop their nuclear programs in what seems like a regional, below-the-radar, slow-motion, nuclear arms race.
Yoel Guzansky is a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and the Israel Institute.