By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
The emergence of a videotape depicting a grisly beating administered by a member of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates has complicated a U.S. effort to create the Arab world's first nuclear energy program, officials said.
The Obama administration had been preparing to send a U.S.-UAE energy accord to Congress for review. Then came the tape. Screened for a stunned congressional audience last week, it shows a robed sheik heaping sand into the mouth of a writhing Afghan merchant pinned to the ground by uniformed police.
The sheik later slams a board with a protruding nail into the Afghan's naked backside. In a gruesome conclusion, a black SUV is driven over the victim's bruised and bleeding body.
People following the accord's progress say the video is damaging because the administration is grappling with controversies over harsh U.S. interrogation practices.
"You've been watching and seeing what happens with U.S. torture policy . . . and what President Obama has had to deal with in trying to clean up this mess. This [UAE agreement] has gotten caught up in all of this," said Danny Sebright, president of the U.S.-UAE Business Council.
The council has been promoting the energy accord, under which the UAE could buy nuclear material from the United States in exchange for agreeing not to make or reprocess nuclear fuel itself, a limitation intended to prevent the development of a weapon.
Both opponents and supporters believe the accord will probably come to pass. But the video has provided fresh ammunition to those who question whether the agreement is tough enough to be a regional model, as it has been portrayed by U.S. officials.
"A country where the laws can be flouted by the rich and powerful is not a country that can safeguard sensitive U.S. nuclear technology," Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) charged after the UAE tape was shown at a meeting of the House's Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
Signed just days before President George W. Bush left office, the nuclear energy accord was left to the Obama administration, which has to decide whether to submit it to Congress.
"We, of course, are very concerned by this video," Ian Kelly, the State Department spokesman, told reporters.
U.S. officials think the UAE accord is important because of the increasing interest in nuclear power, from the Persian Gulf to Latin America. But there are suspicions that some Middle Eastern countries could be seeking the foundations of a weapons program in case Iran builds a nuclear bomb. Israel already has an undeclared nuclear arsenal.
"We thought the best thing to do is to get in there early and say, 'Look, if we're going to start pursuing nuclear power in the Middle East, there are some things we would like to see come out of that -- one of which is, there's not going to be enrichment or reprocessing," said a State Department official involved in the issue, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.
In many ways, the UAE appeared to be the perfect place to try out the new nuclear energy model. The country cooperates closely with the U.S. military. It has agreed to intensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and has hired U.S. nuclear experts and former regulators to help manage its program.
The oil-rich country prides itself on its economic success, symbolized by soaring skyscrapers and opulent hotels.
The tape presents a different image entirely.
The five-year-old video shows a man identified by the UAE government as Sheik Issa bin Zayed, the half brother of the crown prince, using a cattle prod on the genitals of the Afghan man, who was reportedly accused of cheating in a grain deal. The tape was smuggled out of the UAE by a Houston-based businessman involved in a lawsuit against the sheik and was first shown by ABC News.
The Afghan merchant survived and ultimately settled privately with Sheik Issa, UAE authorities told the network.
Last week, the UAE announced that the sheik had been detained, pending a criminal investigation. No UAE officials were available for an interview, according to the country's embassy and public-relations agency. The sheik's U.S. lawyer, Daryl Bristow, declined to comment. Bristow has not disputed that his client on the tape.
To skeptics, the tape is one more reason the agreement should not advance without more stringent requirements to ensure compliance. They agree that the UAE is unlikely to build a bomb, but say other countries seeking similar agreements may want to do so.
"The question you've got to ask is, is this agreement really a model that will stand up to someone who might have weapons aspirations?" said Henry Sokolski, who heads the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Some critics are concerned that reactors could be targets of attack.
The UAE has said it will pursue nuclear power whether or not the U.S. agreement is in place by the fall, when it intends to start choosing among international contractors for the reactors. U.S. officials said critics' doubts will probably ease once the accord is sent to Congress and made public.
Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.