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Congress must push for a 'Gold Standard' nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia
After months of Members of Congress issuing troubling reports, holding hearings and writing letters, there is finally some good news on U.S. policy regarding a Saudi civil nuclear energy program. The Trump administration appears to be taking a strong non-proliferation stance toward nuclear cooperation with the kingdom.
Dated Sept. 4, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry sent a letter to Saudi Arabia calling for a "gold standard" 123 Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with the Saudis that would, "contain a commitment by the kingdom to forgo any enrichment and reprocessing for the term of the agreement."
A 123 Agreement refers to section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and it includes nine nonproliferation criteria such as "nothing transferred is used for any nuclear explosive device." The "gold standard" is an additional "legally binding obligation" to foreswear enrichment and reprocessing technology. The addition of such a standard is critical because these technologies are dual-use, meaning the components of a Saudi civil nuclear program can also be used to build a Saudi nuclear weapons program.
Secretary Perry's letter, it seems, received a public response by Saudi Arabia's newly appointed Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman about a week later as he reiterated the kingdom's intention to master the full nuclear fuel cycle.
Despite their stated interest in civil nuclear energy, the threat of nuclear proliferation from the Saudis is a real one. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is on record saying, "Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible." Even if the Saudis retract that statement, it is clear that the United States should do everything in its power to put reasonable safeguards on a Saudi nuclear energy program.
The administration's position may have improved in this regard, but Congress needs to do its part. The only current legislation moving forward and nearing adequate oversight is Rep. Brad Sherman's (D-Calif.) amendment in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This amendment would require Saudi Arabia to sign the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) Additional Protocol, which enables the nuclear watchdog to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material and ensures its ability to inspect undeclared nuclear material and activities. While this is a start, it is not enough.
Fortunately, more substantive legislation already exists in the form of the bipartisan and bicameral Saudi Nuclear Nonproliferation Act. This legislation was originally introduced to insert Congress into the Saudi nuclear cooperation conversation when it seemed that the White House might not require Saudi Arabia to forgo the right to enrich or reprocess weapons-grade nuclear fuel. The bill would require the "gold standard" in any 123 Agreement with the Saudis, as well as the accession to the Additional Protocol with the IAEA. It would also require that the agreement receives a joint resolution of approval instead of passive consent, as is the standard with other civil nuclear agreements.
The bill is now languishing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. While there may have originally been Republican apprehension to legislate a rebuke of the administration's position toward Saudi Arabia, Secretary Perry's recent letter shows that the Executive and the Legislative branches are now of the same opinion. There is no longer a reason to delay.
And of course, as with any foreign policy matter, no policy choice exists in a vacuum. The United States already has one "gold standard" 123 Agreement in the region with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Despite agreeing to forgo enrichment, the UAE was able to add a provision to its 123 Agreement stipulating that if any regional countries subsequently got a more favorable deal, then they would be free to renegotiate their own. Congress must be aware that choices the United States makes with Saudi Arabia will have a ripple effect around the Middle East.
The path ahead should be obvious, but there are complications. The United States is not the only country competing for the multi-billion-dollar nuclear energy contract with Saudi Arabia. France, South Korea, Russia and China are all on the short list, and as of yet, none has asked Saudi Arabia to foreswear any dual-use technology. This seems irresponsible in the wake of Saudi threats to develop a new nuclear weapons program, but it would not be the first time economic interests outweighed security interests. Congress must be prepared for opponents of a "gold standard" deal with Saudi Arabia to push back on these particular grounds. No matter the cost, preventing proliferation should be a top priority of Congress.
It will be key for Congress to stand firm on this issue especially because the Trump Administration has proven itself to be inconsistent on policy stances, particularly in matters of foreign policy. It could very well reverse course and sign a 123 Agreement with Saudi Arabia that does not meet the "gold standard." That is why leaders in Congress need to take the lead by cementing Secretary Perry's written stance through the Saudi Nuclear Nonproliferation Act. It could make all the difference in preventing a new regional nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Samuel M. Hickey is a Research Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. His areas of focus include nuclear power developments in the Middle East region, non-proliferation and nuclear diplomacy.