Status: Open

Interview with Ambassador Hamad Al Kaabi, Permanent Representative of the UAE to the IAEA

September 19, 2022

PIR Center continues to publish materials on the X NPT Review Conference under the rubric “Notes from the Field: 10th NPT Review Conference through the Eyes of Russian Public Diplomacy”. PIR Center Deputy Director Elena Karnaukhova talked to Ambassador Hamad Al Kaabi, Permanent Representative of the UAE to the IAEA, about the assessments of the X NPT RevCon, politization of review process, China’s positions, Ukraine, the WMD-free zone in the Middle East, JCPOA, UAE in nuclear domain and cooperation with Russia.

Ambassador Hamad Al Kaabi, the first question I would like to pose is a general one. So, how do you assess the current review process and the X NPT Review Conference in particular? Share with us your predictions… What pressure points are we facing now?

NPT RevCon is an important international forum where member states can express their views, concerns and general progress and challenges in relation to the implementation of the Treaty in areas of nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The Conference in 2022 took place at a difficult time. The international security situation has gotten worse, and the X Review Conference took place after 2 years of delay due to the COVID pandemic which affected all nations. The last successful NPT Review Conference to adopt a final document was in 2010, where the parties agreed on a set of actions and views on the way forward.  In 2015, there was no outcome document over the lack of agreement on the Middle East language, and in 2022, the parties again failed to agree on an outcome document over the disagreement in relation to the situation in Ukraine.

The Conference failed because the parties were not satisfied with the level of implementation of the Treaty obligations, and they could not agree on specific steps to address the shortcomings. This is particularly true when it comes to nuclear disarmament obligations, but also other issues. Not much progress has been made regarding nuclear disarmament, such as the reduction of nuclear arsenals since the last review cycle. Other examples include modernization of nuclear weapons, fissile material, safety and security of nuclear power plants, and safeguards and the role of the IAEA. Of course, there are also new issues brought into the discussion, for example, the topic of nuclear-powered submarines in the case of AUKUS. The discussion focused on how to handle such technology and material transfers under the NPT framework, as well as how to use the IAEA safeguards system to ensure nonproliferation principles. This is the first time, under the AUKUS pact, a non-nuclear weapon state will be getting nuclear power submarine technology and related material from nuclear weapons states. The idea is to develop a framework that will serve as a reference for any future similar transfer.

Developing countries are focused on cooperation in the sphere of peaceful nuclear technology. Peaceful nuclear technology is an important tool in many fields, supporting the development of countries. The NPT constitutes an important legal framework for international cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear technology. Therefore, we need to ensure that countries can benefit from such a framework in the most robust way while maintaining safety, security and nonproliferation goals.

Of course, we also discussed the situation in Ukraine this year. This discussion was focused on nuclear safety and security concerns related to nuclear facilities in Ukraine. The question of how to protect nuclear power plants during a military conflict is an important one.

We heard too many times that Chinese had been so active and offensive within the first 3 weeks of the X NPT RevCon. But they seemed to be calm, patient and flexible within the final stage of the Conference. What happened?

It is important to understand that debates under NPT RevCon can go on in different directions based on the issues under discussion but also the political environment that overshadows the discussion. Countries present their views and statements, but at the end it comes to question if all countries can agree on a specific outcome document reflecting common views and recommendations. This is not easy as you can imagine given the wide gap between countries positions.  Regarding AUKUS everyone understands that there is much work to be done, I mean it requires further discussions which will be taken place beyond the NPT review process. AUKUS should be discussed more between countries themselves and with IAEA first to elaborate on the modalities on how such transfer will take place from legal and safeguards prospective.

So, the countries were not able to achieve consensus in 2022 at the end of the day…

Everyone went to the conference with the understanding that it would be a difficult one, but with little hope that an agreement could be reached. The parties at the end of the day could not reach an agreement on the way forward but, nevertheless, it was a good opportunity for the parties to discuss and elaborate on their views and concerns related to the implementation of all provisions of the Treaty.

Countries were very actively discussing situation in Ukraine, much more than NPT, nonproliferation and disarmament issues themselves. Is it right and does it lead to politization of review process?

The situation in Ukraine was of high interest to the Conference. First from the prospective of protection of nuclear facilities during a military conflict and secondly in relation to security assurances.  It is unusual for an operating nuclear power plant to be under direct shelling with a potential for a large nuclear accident. That’s why the parties to the Conference expressed their concerns in relation to nuclear safety and security at nuclear facilities in Ukraine.  Of course, the Conference could not be isolated from the global happenings and the global political and security environment. As a result, there were many confrontations among participation delegations that made the discussion and a potential agreement more difficult. In principle, nuclear facilities should be protected and protocols on assurance for nuclear facility protection should be promoted. It is also very important to promote the important role of IAEA towards this in the areas of armed conflicts. A damage to nuclear facility could lead to catastrophic nuclear accident.  We do need to discuss these issues regardless of political views. These are too important questions for global security.

How do you assess the discussion on Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station? It seems that they were politicized and rather emotional. Russia was considered to be a terrorist, and it was being said in relation to nuclear weapon state. It seems to me that there could not be any successful outcome of the Conference and future progress in disarmament domain.

Member states joined the Review Conference to discuss many issues within NPT framework. Each state has its own national interests and needs to promote and protect them.   Negotiations are affected by these national priorities and in certain cases strong political views. It is true that countries should have possibility to express their views and concerns as well as ideas how to move forward but what is important is to see that such discussions lead to constructive outcome. We can sit down and talk across each other but more important to talk to each other. We all need to find a common ground. There is no doubt that nuclear facility should be protected, its security and safety should be ensured. Situation with Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station is a unique and special case in a way it’s part of a bigger situation in Ukraine. No doubt, the war in Ukraine is under much attention by politicians and public media, but we are diplomats and we should try to find a common ground even at most difficult arguments.

But do you really believe that nuclear disarmament is possible in the age of global tensions?

Nuclear disarmament is an obligation, and nonnuclear weapon states are concerned about lack of progress. Undoubtedly more dialogue between nuclear weapon states is needed to decide collectively how to promote progress in disarmament. That means we hope to see more de-escalation among nuclear weapon states and more open channels for dialogue.  Nonnuclear weapon states should support such efforts. Complete nuclear disarmament may be a farfetched goal but there are things we can do to support the process and the promotion of nuclear disarmament goals, for example at the NPT RevCon we have been often discussing nuclear risk reduction, dealerting, and transparency in nuclear disarmament among other issues such education in the field of nuclear disarmament.

You said that nonnuclear states should support dialogue between nuclear weapon states. But sometimes nonnuclear states do their best to prevent such dialogue. The brightest example is Poland. In the context of special military operation of Russia Poland proposed to US to deploy its nuclear bombs in the Polish territory. Did you discuss such case within X NPT RevCon? How should we react to such initiatives?

I do believe that general understanding on the importance of nuclear disarmament is needed. Nuclear disarmament must be in progress. Exactly all the measures and initiatives which block nuclear disarmament should not be promoted. Further spread of nuclear weapons deployment in more countries lead to increase in nuclear risk and counter to the objective of the Treaty.  Of course, we are not living in ideal, or perfect world, but we should continue to call for full implementation of international agreements and commitments and avoid any actions that could undermine the NPT objective.

Much attention is paid to WMD-free zone in the Middle East. What should be done to finally create the zone and is it possible in general?

WMD-free zone in the Middle East is what we have been calling for over decades. There are a lot of initiatives on steps how to establish WMD-free zone in the Middle East, but we are not there yet. Unfortunately, past attempts have not led to positive results. IX NPT RevCon in 2015 proved unsuccessful because of this problem. And there are many ongoing challenges in general. For example, one country in the Middle East is developing advanced nuclear sensitive activities, and it is raising many questions regarding their real purposes. Moreover, in the Middle East not all states are states-parties to the NPT, combine with ongoing political and security challenges that made it difficult so far to make real progress on the WMD free zone in the Middle East. We continue to be committed to the goal and objective of such zone; we believe it is vital for the long-term security of the region to make progress towards this end.

From your point of view, is it fair that no one Arab state possess nuclear weapons? Do Arab states consider nuclear bomb as a kind of symbol of glory and power?

Arab states are all members of the NPT, and therefore they are committed legally not to pursue the development of nuclear weapons.

How can you comment on JCPOA talks?

It is very important to understand why the situation with JCPOA is complicated. Since the early 2000s, the international community has been trying to address concerns related to Iran’s nuclear program. We are really concerned with the level of the program advancement along the possible undeclared materials and activities. The problem of Iran’s nuclear program can and should be solved under the IAEA framework and in accordance with safeguards principles. It should be solved in a high professional and technical level. Iran has an obligation to be transparent and cooperate fully with the agency regarding all current and past activities in the nuclear domain. Iran needs to rebuild confidence in the exclusive peaceful nature of its nuclear program because the history of its nuclear program has not always been peaceful. What Iran is doing now is not helping to build confidence; on one hand the massive expansion of its enrichment program now enriching up 60% with no real civilian purpose and, on the other hand, not cooperating fully with the Agency regarding undeclared sites and material in the so-called safeguards outstanding questions.

We do hope the ongoing negotiations to revive the JCPOA will provide a solid framework that addresses the outstanding concerns, get a better insight into nuclear program of Iran and to create more transparency measures in order to build the required confidence.

Do you agree that all the situation with Iran nuclear program symbolizes that IAEA safeguards system has been politicized?

Iran nuclear file traces its origin back to undeclared nuclear activities that were part of a secret nuclear weapon program in Iran and therefore the situation with Iran’s nuclear came to the IAEA only after it has been discovered. International community led by IAEA has been trying to resolve Iranian nuclear issue with an objective to ensure there is no more undeclared facilities or material exist in Iran. This requires obviously a lot of cooperation by Iran, and so far, this cooperation has not been great according to the IAEA. I think we should fully support the IAEA independent role and their exclusive authority when it comes to safeguards issues. Agency inspectors should be provided with full support and opportunities to carry out inspections, to reach nuclear sites, and to give creditable assurance for nuclear activities for peaceful purposes. 

Saudi Arabia criticizes JCPOA too much. And it seems to me that from Saudi Arabia perspective, Iran would create nuclear bomb regardless JCPOA or its failure. If Iran creates nuclear bomb, so will do Saudi Arabia. But if Saudi Arabia creates nuclear weapons, what other Arab states will do?

We do not have any evidence currently that any Arab country is developing military nuclear program. Regarding Iranian nuclear program, it is raising many questions and is causing many concerns because not everything is clear with it and given its questionable history. For example, the issue of uranium enrichment, it could not be justified that a non-weapon country develops such massive enrichment program with high enrichment levels, as a mean to develop peaceful nuclear activities. Again, JCPOA is not an ideal document, but we welcomed it with the hope it would help open a new page where Iran would cooperate with the IAEA and be more transparent in relation to its nuclear program.  To fully address concerns related to Iran’s nuclear program, one should know and understand the context, the history of Iranian nuclear program. Building confidence in Iran’s nuclear program along with addressing all outstanding concerns, would help promote dialogue and peaceful relations in the region. My country continues to support engagement and dialogue as ways to resolve differences and concerns.

UAE has already constructed first nuclear power plant Barakah. What plans for the future does UAE have? How does your country ensure the security and safety of nuclear power plant? There are so many conflicts in the Middle East itself… 

We first announced our plans back in 2008 by issuing the Government official policy in relation to development of its peaceful nuclear energy program. The policy set a high-level framework for transparency and high standards of safety, security and nonproliferation. The driver for the establishment of UAE nuclear program is generating electricity to address the increase in demand. Today, we have 4 reactors Barakah NPP, 3 of which are operational, and the 4th is in the final phase of commissioning. Barakah NPP reactors are built and based on high standards of quality and advance design. Advanced safety and security measures are built in the design taking into consideration all potential threats.  Today, UAE nuclear power plant project is considered a good model for many countries including in the region because it is generating clean energy and helps the UAE diversify its energy sources and supply. We have ongoing cooperation with many countries in the region who is looking at our experience as a positive one. Beyond the current Barakah NPP project, no decision is yet made to expand the current fleet of reactors, but it is an option for the future giving the continues increase of energy demand.

Is UAE developing any projects in the sphere of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament education?

We are engaged in some nonproliferation and disarmament projects to certain extent. We have held workshops and seminars, for examples. It is very important to develop the education system in the areas of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, and much more projects are needed to let young generations understand all the challenges and opportunities in the nuclear domain. As we have discussed already the world is   facing many challenges in relation to nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament. Young generation should be able to deal with these issues in the future and to continue the process of disarmament negotiations and cementing nuclear nonproliferation regime. The best way to prepare young generation of experts on nuclear issues, both women and men, is to engage them in specialized training program and to give them the opportunity to engage as much as possible in official meetings and international discussions. 

I saw many female diplomates from UAE here, in New York. It seems to me that your country does not have any problems with gender equality what is very popular to discuss. What do you think personally about gender mainstream? Arab states prove to be rather conservative. 

We have a very strong policy regarding empowerment of women in the UAE across all sectors. We have many women as governmental officials, many of them are holding high positions, including ministers and ambassadors. Successful professional female officials are a source of pride to my country and a result of long-term policy and strategies for empowerment of women.  UAE approach for empowering women is a good example of a successful strategy and can be seen as a model for other countries.

What can you say about cooperation with Russia in nuclear domain?   

We have a governmental agreement with Russia on nuclear cooperation and ongoing commercial cooperation in several areas, including the area of provision of nuclear fuel. Russia companies are welcome expand existing cooperation in the nuclear energy domain.  We do not have many young specialists trained in Russia, possibly because of the language difficulties but this could change as young men and women are trained in many foreign languages. UAE has a strong and friendly relation with Russia, I think, we should continue to explore possible cooperation in raising generations of young specialists.