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Preliminary U.S.-Saudi Nuclear Trade Talks Set for Next Week

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

(Jul. 28) -U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to reporters alongside her Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal, in Riyadh last year. The Obama administration is set to inform Capitol Hill of plans to begin preliminary talks about a civil nuclear accord with Saudi Arabia, officials and experts said (Mohammed Obaidi/Getty Images). (Jul. 28) -U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to reporters alongside her Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal, in Riyadh last year. The Obama administration is set to inform Capitol Hill of plans to begin preliminary talks about a civil nuclear accord with Saudi Arabia, officials and experts said (Mohammed Obaidi/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration expects next week to launch initial talks with Saudi Arabia aimed at appraising prospects for a civil nuclear trade agreement, a senior State Department official is expected to tell Capitol Hill by Friday (see GSN, June 30).

"It sounds like this administration is in the early stages of an agreement ... with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia," said one senior congressional staffer tracking the issue.

Several other Washington officials and experts confirmed the anticipated Obama administration briefings on what could prove to be a highly contentious political issue. The executive branch is required under law to keep Congress informed of any emerging nuclear deals.

A State Department spokesman did not respond to a request for information by press time.

A so-called "123 agreement" -- named for the section of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act that governs these international pacts -- could offer Saudi Arabia access to advanced U.S. nuclear energy technologies, materials and know-how.

The Saudi government is interested in tapping the U.S. nuclear sector "for use in medicine, industry and power generation and [to] help in the development of both human and infrastructure resources," the State Department said in announcing a preliminary memorandum of understanding in May 2008.

Global Security Newswire was the first to report in January that the administration was weighing the possibility of initiating formal negotiations, potentially without demanding that Riyadh accept key nonproliferation pledges embraced by one of its neighbors, the United Arab Emirates, in its own 2009 trade arrangement with Washington (see GSN, Jan 25).

Bilateral discussions with Saudi Arabia are expected to face harsh criticism from U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Supporters of Israel and nonproliferation advocates alike widely oppose such a deal based on concerns that Riyadh might exploit U.S. atomic materials and expertise to eventually help develop a nuclear weapon.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to the United States and a member of the ruling family, last month reportedly said that his nation would develop nuclear weapons if neighboring Iran ever acquired them. Tehran is widely suspected of engaging in efforts to develop atomic arms, though it insists its program is entirely dedicated to peaceful power generation.

"We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don't," the prince was quoted as telling high-ranking NATO officers at an event in the United Kingdom. "It's as simple as that. If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit."

Eyebrows are also being raised here over the timing of the anticipated talks, in the wake of the so-called "Arab Spring." The Saudi regime -- widely criticized for its democracy and human rights record -- is believed to have a somewhat tenuous grip on power.

Even prior to this week's briefings, some said Capitol Hill can be expected to question whether the kingdom should be considered sufficiently reliable and stable enough to be entrusted with sensitive U.S. nuclear technologies.

"The idea that they would be next in line for a 123 agreement is flabbergasting," said the senior congressional staff aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The Persian Gulf nation has a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, but no Additional Protocol that would subject it to more intrusive monitoring and inspections aimed at ensuring there is no diversion of nuclear material to military purposes.

Bipartisan legislation introduced in the House in April would make it easier for Congress to block implementation of future nuclear trade agreements by subjecting them to up-or-down votes, with a key exception for pacts that include specific nonproliferation provisions. If a partner nation promises not to produce nuclear fuel on its territory, Congress would afford the agreement preferential treatment and it would be more likely to garner approval.

It remained unclear this week whether the Atomic Energy Act reform measure would be taken up on the House floor before the end of the year.

The State Department on July 15 announced its opposition to the House bill, asserting that H.R. 1280 "would reduce the likelihood that the United States would be able to conclude 123 agreements successfully with other countries, thereby limiting our influence over others' nuclear programs."

Some conservative pundits and industry advocates also oppose the legislation, arguing it could hamper overseas sales for the U.S. nuclear sector and do little to stop foreign competitors from offering energy deals with more permissive nonproliferation terms.

Some Capitol Hill aides expect that many lawmakers will see the two issues as linked.

"Nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia?" a second congressional source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday. "Maybe that's why the nuclear industry and the administration don't want Congress to have the right to approve all new agreements."

As things stand, a U.S. nuclear cooperative agreement with a foreign nation submitted to Congress can be implemented after 90 days of continuous legislative session, unless both chambers vote to block the measure. A president negotiating such an accord would be almost certain to veto such legislation, meaning that a two-thirds majority must be assembled in the House and Senate to dispose of any pact that Congress finds objectionable.

At the same time, the Obama administration continues to review whether or how to apply what it calls a "gold standard" to future nuclear cooperation accords, according to government officials. The term stems from the UAE renunciation of domestic enrichment and reprocessing rights in its pact with Washington. President Obama has not yet acted to resolve a simmering debate between key national security Cabinet officials over the matter (see GSN, Nov. 19, 2010).

It remains unclear whether Saudi Arabia would embrace a gold standard pledge. If Washington offers Riyadh more favorable terms -- such as a pact that allows for Saudi enrichment or reprocessing -- the UAE agreement would permit Abu Dhabi to avail itself of the same rights.

"After publicly insisting that Saudi Arabia must get the bomb if Iran does, anything Saudi Arabia promises in the way of nuclear restraint would have to [be] taken with a ton of salt," said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Sokolski and other nonproliferation proponents worry about multiple dominoes falling across the Middle East as more nations feel compelled to begin work toward building a nuclear deterrent.

News of forthcoming talks with Saudi Arabia surfaced after the U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, James Smith, told business leaders last week that exploratory discussions were about to begin, congressional aides said.

He addressed the issue during a July 19 teleconference sponsored by the Business Council for International Understanding, in which participants paid up to $60 to take part, according to sources. Details of Smith's remarks are unavailable because the session was considered off-the-record, an organization representative said.

After getting wind of the anticipated U.S.-Saudi talks, congressional staffers requested information about the diplomatic foray from the State Department, according to government sources. In response, Capitol Hill was informed that Richard Stratford, director of State's Nuclear Energy, Safety and Security office, would brief key staffers by the end of this week.

Stratford is expected to say that initial technical talks are to address Saudi objectives for a civil nuclear energy effort, what might be done with spent fuel, and whether the kingdom would be willing to forsake uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, GSN has learned.

In addition to briefing congressional staff, the Obama administration reportedly expects to consult with Israel before deciding whether to go forward with formal negotiations on a Saudi pact.

Stratford in April hinted that Saudi interest in a nuclear trade agreement would likely force Washington to grapple with a weighty judgment call.

"Saudi Arabia has not yet asked for a '123' but I think they will be in Washington shortly," he told an audience at a nuclear policy conference sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "My guess is, they will ask for a '123' and then we'll have to decide how we're going to handle Saudi Arabia."

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