Saudi nuclear program can be secretly managed - top Israeli sources

Covert methods can prevent Saudis from switching civilian nuke program to military.

 Hacker in a dark room (illustrative). (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Hacker in a dark room (illustrative).
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Top Israeli sources have told the Jerusalem Post that there are secret technological ways to ensure that the Saudis do not misuse civilian nuclear items, which the US may give them as part of a three-way normalization deal, for military purposes.

Although there are no guarantees, because the issue is highly technical and there are issues to address regarding the Palestinians and highly complex politics, these technological fixes could be key to locking in a normalization deal between Riyadh and Jerusalem, under Washington’s auspices.

There are at least two aspects to the Saudis request that Washington provide it with a civilian nuclear program as one major incentive for Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's (MBS) willingness to normalize relations with the Jewish state.

One aspect is a nuclear power plant for generating electricity. That is the easier one.

The harder one is whether the Saudis receive enriched uranium for their facility and how that uranium will be enriched going forward. Most importantly, would they receive the capability to enrich the uranium themselves locally, or would they just receive pre-enriched uranium shipped in from abroad?

 ACCORDING TO Thomas Friedman, US President Joe Biden is still not committed to a Saudi-Israeli deal. (credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)
ACCORDING TO Thomas Friedman, US President Joe Biden is still not committed to a Saudi-Israeli deal. (credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer in a PBS interview in late August did not dismiss outright the possibility of Israeli support for a Saudi Arabian civilian nuclear power program that includes uranium enrichment.

Dermer repeatedly warned that if the US does not give the Saudis something in the nuclear arena, MBS may get a nuclear program with even fewer restrictions from China.

Later, anonymous sources on one hand tried to water down Dermer’s seeming license to sell a nuclear program to the Saudis, but on the other hand. said the government would not rule it out.

The big question Dermer and the anonymous sources left open was how involved the US would be in managing whatever the Saudis received and what kind of insurance policy Israel would have against MBS or some later ruler going rogue to try to transform a civilian nuclear program into a military one.

Former Shin Bet cyber official Harel Menashri said the better approach would be, “Don’t give the Saudis any ability to enrich uranium,” and that any enriched uranium they receive should “only be pre-enriched somewhere else.”

What does an “insurance policy” mean in this context?

The 'digital backdoor'

Top Israeli sources have told the Post that despite the concerns of some top defense officials, there are digital “backdoor” ways to ensure that even if the Saudis were given some kind of limited enrichment capability, if they started to try to misuse it for military purposes, the whole thing could be shut off or otherwise sabotaged.  

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant recently gave top US officials a series of detailed questions about what US safeguards would be in place and exactly what capabilities it would grant Riyadh. Some of the very specific answers could potentially relate to backdoor oversight and shutoff capabilities, which could determine Gallant’s and other defense officials’ views on the issue.

Although the digital backdoor idea is highly sensitive and most officials have tried to avoid discussing it, the idea is not a new one.

As Menashri, who today is the Head of Cyber at the Holon Institute of Technology, pointed out, the Stuxnet virus, attributed to Israel and the US, around 15 years ago, sabotaged over 1,000 Iranian centrifuges for enriching uranium – setting the program potentially back a number of years.

That is only the tip of the iceberg in 2023.

The US Justice Department in 2022 unsealed charges against four Russian hackers over cyberattacks, including one on a breach of business systems at the Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corporation in Burlington, Kansas.

US nuclear regulators have also suffered cyberattacks, being hacked three times between 2010 and 2013. The Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) were hacked as part of the government-wide SolarWinds Russian-led cyber attack in 2020.

That is without even getting into cyber attacks on nuclear facilities in India, South Korea, Germany, Ukraine, Japan, and others.

Not all of these attacks got deep into infrastructure and beyond outer layers of data, but the point is that hacking nuclear facilities can be accomplished, the same as hacking any other facility, even if there are sometimes some extra obstacles.

So there are certainly tools for the US to be able to shut down anything that might be given to the Saudis, and part of what is interesting is that any top officials are discussing the options.

Again, while the deal with the Saudis is far from a sure thing, the increasingly public discussion on the issues speak to how in-depth and serious the process is being taken, including an idea which not long ago – Israel endorsing a Sunni state getting a nuclear program – would have been unthinkable.

Despite the backdoor cyber tools which could be an insurance policy if the Saudis are given an enrichment capability, Menashri warned “if you give the Saudis the capability to enrich themselves – that is a very problematic event. If tomorrow the ruler changes, they can take the enrichment capabilities and move it forward to a military capability.”

“You can sell and craft a system with backdoors, but this is an event where you can only know where it will start, but not where it ends. The Saudis are not fools. They will figure it out – even if it takes two years or 10 years, and once they neutralize the backdoor, you have a big problem,” said the former Shin Bet cyber official.

He continued noting that every F-35 in the world has software installed which theoretically allows the US to take over control remotely, but that it is possible to introduce barriers to this control.

Moreover, Menashri warned no one should publicly get into the specifics of how the US could use backdoors as “this can only cause harm.”

Next, he cautioned that Israel needs to “look with a wider view. If the US gives the Saudis [nuclear capabilities], it opens the entire Middle East to the problem of a nuclear race.”

Mainly, the former Shin Bet cyber official continued to hit home how unpredictable certain things become once you grant some kind of a dynamic capability to a resourceful actor.

He noted that originally, Russia only gave Iran a nuclear power plant and the idea was that the Iranians would receive pre-enriched uranium from Moscow. But eventually, and after initial Russian help with some things, Iran developed its Natanz facility which gave it independent local enrichment capabilities.