Nuclear issues sharpen focus on US-Saudi relations

A nuclear war is in prospect between Congress and the Trump administration. Tension is high. Skirmishes have begun. But the political battle is not being fought with nukes. Rather, it is about nukes — Saudi nukes.

The word “Saudi” is cropping up in many headlines these days. Perhaps too many. The Saudis likely are players in the “deal of the century” — the yet-to-be-announced Middle East plan, where their financial weight, regional prestige and religious significance could be crucial to U.S. diplomacy.

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But this role runs in parallel with the challenge of coping with the notoriety gained by imprisoning and allegedly abusing women political activists, and the cause celebre of the murder and dismemberment of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The nuclear issue bridges the positives and negatives — what we want the Saudis to do, and what we hope they will stop doing.

Riyadh wants nuclear power plants, for generating electricity and for desalination. To access U.S. technology, Riyadh needs to sign a so-called 123 Agreement, which would lay out the parameters for nuclear cooperation. When the United States signed one with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2009, Abu Dhabi pledged not to enrich its own fuel nor to reprocess its spent fuel. (Enriching is the technique that can result in highly enriched uranium, a nuclear explosive. Reprocessing produces plutonium, which also can be used in atomic bombs.)

Riyadh declares its nascent nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes but wants to retain the right to enrich and reprocess. An additional argument made by individual Saudis is that, if Iran is allowed to enrich under the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear accord — which still exists even though President TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE withdrew the United States last year — why can’t Riyadh?

For skeptics, there are powerful economic arguments why, perhaps counter-intuitively, oil and gas rich countries such as the kingdom, the UAE and Iran need nuclear power. First, it enables them to generate electricity at a fixed cost, rather than one that fluctuates with energy prices. Second, it enables these countries to maximize their oil and gas foreign exchange revenues.

The White House wants to secure any Saudi nuclear technology purchases, worth up to $80 billion, for American business rather than the competing Russians, Chinese, French or South Koreans. In Congress, there is a bipartisan belief, likely reinforced by intelligence briefings on the demise of Khashoggi, that the mercurial Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, aka MbS, is not reliable. Politicians and the public alike are concerned by his comment in a “60 Minutes” interview a year ago: “... If Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

In the Middle East, the UAE reportedly will want to revisit its 123 Agreement if the kingdom’s is less restrictive. And Saudi neighbor Qatar was bothered by news reports last year that not only would a canal be dug to separate it from the kingdom but the area between the two countries would be used as a nuclear waste dump.

Even Israel, arguably one of MbS’s best, albeit low-profile, advocates in Washington, reportedly is concerned about nuclear technology in Saudi hands. And MbS’s recent high-profile visit to Islamabad has rekindled anxieties about Pakistan being prepared to give or lend nuclear-tipped missiles to the kingdom in time of regional tension. (A new missile manufacturing facility in the Saudi desert looks very similar in layout to one China supplied to Pakistan in the 1990s.)

The latest round of arguments in Congress on March 28 involved Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi fires back in feud with Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Another VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? MORE not remembering whether any of the paperwork he had authorized, allowing American companies to have initial nuclear discussions with the Saudis, had been signed after Oct. 2, 2018, the day Khashoggi was murdered. A subsequent Department of Energy (DOE) statement did not clarify the timeline. The same day, Saudi Prince Khalid bin Salman, the 31-year-old former ambassador to Washington and MbS’s younger brother, discussed “bilateral issues” with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Details on Senate's 0B defense bill | Bill rejects Trump plan to skirt budget caps | Backfills money for border wall | Defense chief says more troops could head to Mideast Trump defense chief: US may send more troops to Middle East amid Iran tensions Pompeo slams 'unconscionable' release of 'American Taliban' MORE at the State Department.

For the moment, it is perhaps nuclear theater rather than nuclear war. But it is certainly time to make the popcorn.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.