On my mind: Saudi nuclear ambitions

The Saudis may argue that, given Iran’s aggressive renewal of its nuclear program following Trump’s decision last year to withdraw the US from the JCPOA, they need to pursue their own.

Radioactive sign (photo credit: FLICKR)
Radioactive sign
(photo credit: FLICKR)
National pride combined with the egos of authoritarian leaders is a toxic mix, when joining the exclusive club of nuclear nations is deemed to be a national priority.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently upped the ante for his country’s nuclear program. “Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads,” said Erdogan. “I cannot possess missiles with nuclear warheads? I do not accept that,” he declared in a direct challenge to the US and other NATO allies.
With Russian assistance, Turkey is building its first nuclear plant in Akkuyu, ostensibly only to produce electricity. But provisions for disposing of nuclear waste, and ensuring that Turkey – a nation with its own uranium deposits – does not move toward developing a nuclear weapons capability are unclear.
Erdogan’s brazenness on the nuclear issue comes amidst his ever-increasing boldness towards the US over the war in Syria, the status and security of Kurds, Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles and other regional issues. The Turkish leader’s nuclear ambition apparently was not discussed when US President Donald Trump met with him at the White House last week.
Before Erdogan’s nuclear proclamation, however, Saudi Arabia’s nascent program was attracting some scrutiny. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told CBS News last year that the kingdom “does not want to acquire any nuclear bombs, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
During the US-led negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program that culminated in the 2015 JCPOA, there were repeated warnings that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability would prompt other countries in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to invest in their own nuclear programs.
“The kingdom does not need nuclear power,” Ali Ahmad, director of the energy policy and security program at the American University of Beirut, told The Wall Street Journal in February 2018. He explained that Saudi Arabia has expandable capacity for solar and other renewable power and can tap huge natural gas reserves.
For nations genuinely interested in nuclear power, even major oil-producers, there is an alternative. It already was in place in the region before the Iran nuclear deal. The “123 Agreement” between the US and United Arab Emirates went into effect in December 2009. It provides for the Gulf sheikhdom to develop a civilian nuclear program, with American assistance. However, in an additional protocol called “the gold standard,” the UAE is precluded from enriching uranium or reprocessing spent fuel to produce plutonium. The country plans to build four nuclear plants for civilian use.
The US-UAE nuclear accord was regarded as the model for other countries interested in partnering with the US on a nuclear program. Indeed, a year before the accord, India had signed a similar non-military, civilian deal with the US.
The Saudis, however, have been resisting similar restrictions, and that has raised concerns in the US Congress. The bipartisan Saudi Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 2019, introduced earlier this year in both the House and Senate, would require congressional approval of any US-Saudi civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, and assurances that the accord has “gold standard” prohibitions on enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium.
US presidents – Democrats and Republicans alike – have been consistently deferential to Saudi leaders for many decades. The two countries enjoy a close, strategic alliance. But the Trump administration has been particularly charmed by and supportive of the kingdom. Trump’s first overseas trip as president was to Riyadh; he vetoed congressional legislation seeking to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and Jared Kushner has developed close relations with the young crown prince.
Earlier this year, Reuters reported that then-energy secretary Rick Perry had secretly approved of American companies to sell nuclear technology and assistance to Saudi Arabia. However, before he resigned in October, Perry indicated a shift in the administration’s approach that aligns with members of Congress. He sent a letter to Saudi leaders setting forth the US commitment to a gold standard 123 agreement with the expectation that Riyadh will concur.
The Saudis – as well as the Turks – may argue that, given Iran’s aggressive renewal of its nuclear program (including enriching uranium) following Trump’s decision last year to withdraw the US from the JCPOA, they need to pursue their own.
And, like Turkey, the Saudis may turn to other nations for assistance. Russia, along with China, France, South Korea and the US, are competing to secure the contract for the first Saudi nuclear facility.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia last month highlighted his assertive foreign policy in the Middle East, notably Russia’s military intervention in Syria and engagement of traditional American allies.
If there is an issue on which the Trump administration and Congress should agree, it is reaffirming longstanding American policy on preventing nuclear proliferation. Given the history and extent of the US-Saudi relationship, the Saudis should be persuaded to accept the American 123 gold standard terms, or abandon their nuclear ambition altogether.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.