Saudi energy deal push sparks nuclear weapon concerns

Nuclear nonproliferation advocates are sounding the alarm about a potential nuclear energy deal between Saudi Arabia and the United States, saying the exceptions the kingdom is seeking could lead to nuclear proliferation in a volatile region.

At issue is a deal that would allow the United States to sell nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration has already started negotiations, with Energy Secretary Rick Perry reportedly meeting with senior Saudi officials in London last month.

{mosads}Such deals, known as “123 agreements” after the section of the law that requires them, allow for transfers of nuclear material, equipment or components from the United States to another nation if the other country commits to a set of nine nonproliferation criteria.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is visiting Washington next week and is sure to press President Trump on the issue.

But comments the crown prince made this week that Saudi Arabia would develop a nuclear bomb “as soon as possible” if Iran does are raising red flags for lawmakers who were already skeptical of the kingdom’s intentions.

“Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has confirmed what many have long suspected — nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia is about more than just electrical power, it’s about geopolitical power,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said in a statement. “The United States must not compromise on nonproliferation standards in any 123 agreement it concludes with Saudi Arabia.”

When the United States entered into a 123 agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2009, the UAE voluntarily agreed to prohibitions on enriching uranium or reprocessing spent fuel to produce plutonium — essential steps in producing nuclear weapons.

That agreement has become known as the “gold standard” that nonproliferation advocates say should be part of all 123 agreements.

But Saudi Arabia has indicated it will not accept the “gold standard” because of its rivalry with Iran. The Iran nuclear deal limits uranium enrichment activities but does not prohibit them entirely.

Mohammed’s interview with “60 Minutes” this week stoked concerns that Saudi Arabia would use its nuclear program to counter Iran. 

“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,” he said in a clip released Thursday.

Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation, a D.C. think tank funded by corporate donors in Saudi Arabia, said that the kingdom’s main goal is economic. Saudi Arabia needs to diversify its fuel sources as oil exports drive its economy, but domestic oil consumption is expected to match production in 20 to 25 years.

Still, Shihabi acknowledged that “Iran is the shadow hovering over anything.”

“The government of Saudi Arabia is not going to accept, in my view, terms that are worse than what America’s adversary accepted,” he said.

He argued the United States is better off making the deal with Saudi Arabia with some nonproliferation concessions, rather than not making a deal and watching Saudi Arabia get reactors from another potential supplier, like Russia. That would damage the U.S.-Saudi relationship, eliminate U.S. business opportunities and gives the United States less oversight of nuclear technology in the Middle East, he said.

But Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, said comparing the Iran deal and a potential deal with Saudi Arabia is inaccurate. Iran already had the ability to process uranium before the deal, which isn’t a nuclear cooperation agreement, he said.

Reif also argued Saudi Arabia’s ability to do business with other countries doesn’t mean United States should lower its standards. The United States has the leverage to make Saudi Arabia adhere to the gold standard, he added, since countries want the U.S. to approve of their nuclear programs.

“Curbing the spread of nuclear weapons and the technology to make them is strongly in the U.S. national interest, especially when talking about the Middle East, which is plagued by various security competitions,” Reif said, adding that three of the last four 123 agreements contained legally or politically binding prohibitions on enrichment and reprocessing.

Still, Reif fears that the Trump administration will give in to Saudi Arabia because of its desire to maintain a good relationship with the Saudis, revitalize the U.S. nuclear industry and provide a counterweight to Iran.

Reif encouraged Congress, which will have 90 days to block the agreement once it’s submitted for review, to constrain any agreement that doesn’t contain the gold standard. For example, he said, lawmakers could pass a resolution of approval that stipulates the agreement will be terminated if Saudi Arabia ever seeks to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel.

Lawmakers are increasingly concerned about the deal. Markey, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to the Trump administration in February ahead of Perry’s reported London trip that included a dozen questions about the deal.
“A commitment to the gold standard is one way the United States ensures that nations with whom we engage in civil nuclear cooperation are living up the highest nuclear nonproliferation standards,” he wrote. “And far from committing to the gold standard, Saudi Arabia has failed to take basic steps that would signal its commitment to use nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes.”

The letter asked for a response by March 15, last Thursday. A spokesperson for Markey told The Hill on Thursday afternoon that he had not yet received a response.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a longtime nonproliferation advocate, said the administration “shouldn’t even consider” the deal if Saudi Arabia doesn’t agree to never pursue nuclear enrichment or reprocessing. Feinstein pledged to block any deal that doesn’t include those provisions.

“There’s no reason the United States should share sensitive nuclear technology if there is any risk of nuclear proliferation in the region,” Feinstein said in a statement to The Hill on Friday. “If the administration agrees to a nuclear agreement that moves Saudi Arabia closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will do everything I can to block it.”

A House Foreign Affairs subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the potential agreement Wednesday, while Mohammed is still in town. Outside experts are slated to testify.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the subcommittee, said she expects the hearing to cover the status of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear plans, the implications of a deal without the gold standard and legislative options to increase congressional oversight “so that the U.S. can ensure national security interests always take precedence over political or commercial considerations in any future nuclear agreement.”

“The administration has been moving full speed ahead on its negotiations with Saudi Arabia regarding a potential 123 nuclear cooperation agreement, and unfortunately, Congress has been left mostly in the dark,” she said in a statement Friday. “The potential ramifications, including proliferation and the easing of enrichment and reprocessing restrictions, highlight the need for long-needed reforms to the outdated congressional review process.”

Tags Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Ed Markey Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Rick Perry

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