The negotiations on nuclear cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia were renewed recently; the contacts had hit a dead end a few years ago because of the kingdom’s refusal to give up its “right” to enrich uranium. But the Trump administration is considering changing its approach and allowing enrichment.
U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has visited Riyadh to discuss the developing agreement, and senior administration officials hinted in a briefing for Congress that Washington might drop its objections to a deal. President Donald Trump, who wants to strengthen his relations with the Saudis and also has in mind U.S. business interests, could very well sign an agreement that would be problematic for Israel.
Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to lag behind Iran, and a few years ago unveiled an ambitious program to build 16 nuclear reactors. The kingdom received proposals from the United States, China, Russia, France and South Korea, and announced that it would choose the companies to start building the first two reactors by April. The reactors are expected to begin operations toward the end of the next decade.
Saudi Arabia has raised serious claims about its need for a civilian nuclear program to meet its growing energy demands, reduce its dependence on oil and free up more oil for exports, but its main motive for a nuclear program is defense. The Saudis feel that the big powers’ signing of the nuclear agreement with Iran increased Tehran’s aggressiveness and didn’t halt its long-term nuclear aspirations.
The United Arab Emirates is close to completing its first civilian nuclear reactor and committed, in an agreement with the United States in 2009, not to enrich uranium if it received the international help needed to build the reactor. This level of restrictions is considered the gold standard for nuclear nonproliferation, which the Saudis are unwilling to accept; they feel that if the Iranians are allowed, why not them?
Saudi Arabia seeks to have as many options available as possible, including the nuclear option. The Saudis have the strategic motive and financial capacity to do so – more than anyone in the region. A sustainable nuclear program would help the country keep up not only with Iran, but also with the UAE, Turkey and Egypt, which are all at the beginning of the road but further along than Saudi Arabia.
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But the development of a civilian nuclear program is a long-term goal because of the kingdom’s lack of basic knowledge and appropriate facilities. The nuclear agreement with Iran, if it remains in place, will give Riyadh about a decade for developing a “civilian” nuclear effort – without any intention to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In the short term, in the scenario of an Iranian breakout for building nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia might already have something of a response in the form of Pakistan, which, despite disagreements between the two countries in recent years, still serves as a strategic buttress for Saudi Arabia and could very well help it with its nuclear program.
Israel now faces a dilemma. On the one hand, giving an official stamp of approval to the Saudi enrichment capability would lead to regional proliferation with countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Turkey asking for the same “rights.” The UAE could then say it's no longer bound by its current agreement, as it has hinted in the past, and the United States would have a hard time justifying additional restrictions on nuclear development in Iran. If Saudi Arabia decides in the future that it needs a military nuclear capability, today’s planned civilian nuclear project could enable a fast track.
On the other hand, it’s in Israel’s interest for the United States, which is much more committed than China or Russia to preventing nuclear proliferation, to be the big winner in the Saudi nuclear market. In this way Washington could remain aware of events in the Saudi nuclear industry while acquiring another area of leverage on Riyadh. It could also reduce Saudi Arabia’s ability and motivation to secretly develop a nuclear capability.
Thus, even though Israel shares significant interests with Riyadh – and according to press reports enjoys strategic cooperation with it – it should work in Washington to keep from the Saudis an unrestrained enrichment capability. It should try to ensure that the U.S.-Saudi nuclear deal comes as close as possible to the nuclear non-proliferation gold standard.
Yoel Guzansky is a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.