Courtesy Reuters U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah talk before a meeting at the King's desert encampment in Rawdat al-Khuraim

Saudi Arabia's Nuclear Envy

Washington Should Help Riyadh Keep Up With Tehran

It’s safe to assume that the government of Saudi Arabia is feeling anxiety over the evident progress in nuclear talks between the United States and Iran. Indeed, as Riyadh’s regional rival moves closer to receiving international recognition for its nuclear program, the kingdom’s own nuclear aspirations seem to have stalled completely: a proposed U.S.-Saudi nuclear agreement has been at a standstill for six years. And the stalled talks are only one of several issues that have hurt the relationship between Riyadh and Washington in recent years. 

Clearly, the nuclear issue in particular poses a problem for Saudi Arabia, which would like to keep pace with Iran on technological advancements and regional prestige. But it is also a problem for the United States, which cannot afford to be estranged from Saudi Arabia at a time when it requires its assistance in resolving conflicts in Iraq, Israel, and Syria. Fortunately, there are steps that the United States can take to push the nuclear talks with Saudi Arabia out of their rut. As a basic template, Washington should look to the nuclear deal it struck last decade with India.

HELP WANTED 

The U.S.-Saudi nuclear talks were initiated in 2008, when then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal, signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Energy Cooperation. At the time, many observers expected that the two countries were forging a new pillar for their 80-year-long strategic partnership. Indeed, Saudi Arabia soon announced its intention to build 16 nuclear power plants (at an estimated cost of $112 billion), which would have made it the world’s largest civilian nuclear program and generated tens of thousands of high-paying jobs for the kingdom’s growing population. Riyadh has justified its nuclear ambitions by pointing to the country’s dependence on oil and gas exports, which constitute 80 percent of national revenue; if Saudi Arabia could meet its own growing energy demands through nuclear energy, it wouldn’t have to curtail its sale of oil on the international market. 

But before Saudi Arabia enjoys its first watt of nuclear energy, it needs to find partners who are willing to help build its nuclear infrastructure—and at the moment, the United States doesn’t seem willing to play that role. Washington has said that it would first need to reach an agreement with Riyadh on adherence to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, a U.S. law that regulates nuclear commerce—and those efforts have stalled over the question of whether Saudi Arabia would be subject to the so-called Gold Standard provision that would proscribe Riyadh from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium. 

Riyadh is unsurprisingly incensed at any suggestion that it wouldn’t be accorded the same right to enrich uranium that the United States effectively granted to Iran under the interim agreement between those two countries. Sources familiar with the negotiations say that Riyadh has argued that the Gold Standard represents an unacceptable infringement on its national sovereignty, emphasizing that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Saudi Arabia is a signatory, stipulates that countries have a right to develop peaceful nuclear energy.  

The White House has so far seemed reluctant to offer any compromise. According to press reports, U.S. President Barack Obama avoided addressing the issue entirely during his recent visit to Riyadh. Obama’s hesitancy may stem from a desire to avoid a backlash in Congress similar to the one in 2006 after the Bush administration proposed selling a major port to a company based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It’s likely that Saudi Arabia has avoided airing its concerns publicly for the same reasons. Complicating matters is the fact that Israel is likely to oppose any nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia that doesn’t adhere to the Gold Standard and will pressure its allies in Washington to do the same. (Israel tacitly approved the 2009 nuclear deal between the United States and the UAE, which was compliant with the Gold Standard.) 

Saudi Arabia, should it fail to reach an understanding with Washington, might instead choose to partner with either France or Russia to develop its nuclear program. Last January, during a state visit by French President François Hollande to Riyadh, the French company Areva, the world’s largest nuclear firm, signed Memorandums of Understanding with five Saudi companies that aim to develop the industrial and technical skills of local companies. Similarly, the CEO of Russia’s Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko, announced in July that Russia and Saudi Arabia expect to sign an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation later this year. If Saudi Arabia follows through on these agreements, it would be to the detriment of U.S. companies—and, perhaps, the broader U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership. 

THE INDIA PRECEDENT

At present, a compromise between Saudi Arabia and the United States seems unlikely. But it’s not hard to imagine a middle ground that would be acceptable to both sides. One promising precedent is the U.S.-Vietnam nuclear agreement of 2014, which allowed Hanoi to obtain any nuclear reactor fuel that it needs for its reactors from the international market, rather than produce the material itself—a model that was dubbed the Silver Standard. This arrangement would likely be acceptable to Riyadh, as it is consistent with the agreement that Rice and Faisal signed in 2008. It’s unclear, however, whether it would be acceptable to Congress. U.S. politicians who claim to fear “Saudi nukes”—or the prospect that Riyadh’s nuclear program could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists—are unlikely to accept anything short of the Gold Standard.

In that sense, the U.S.-India nuclear agreement of 2008 might be a better template. Under this agreement, New Delhi agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and to place all of its civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards; in exchange, the United States agreed to provide assistance to India’s civilian nuclear energy program and expand cooperation in energy and satellite technology. Washington could aim to strike a similar deal with Riyadh: it could make assurances that it would assist Saudi Arabia with its nuclear program in exchange for IAEA monitoring of its civilian facilities. (Saudi Arabia is not planning any nuclear installations with military purposes.) Like the India deal, such an agreement would allow the United States to share its state-of-the-art technologies and safety best practices, even if it included provisions that would prohibit the transfer of particularly sensitive equipment and technologies.

The new U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, Joseph W. Westphal, broached the subject of renewed talks in July, but without much evident success, sources familiar with the matter say. But this is not to suggest that Saudi Arabia is planning to move on without Washington. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has yet to make any long-term commitments to either France or Russia, suggesting that it is still uncomfortable with pursuing its nuclear ambitions without the backing of the United States, its long-standing strategic partner. (Moreover, the much-anticipated bidding process initially slated for this past spring has been postponed indefinitely, prompting speculations about the viability of its program.) For Washington, a modified India model may be a good starting point for negotiations, but in order to bring an agreement to fruition, the White House will likely have to move it to the top of the bilateral agenda. Of course, it’s another question entirely whether the political leaders inside and outside the region possess the wisdom, perseverance, and ability to seize this opportunity.

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