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Obama administration mulls India-style nuclear pact with Saudi Arabia

US officials are planning to hold talks with Saudi Arabia next week over a potential civilian nuclear pact. But Israeli concerns and Saudi Arabia's rivalry with Iran could complicate matters.

By Staff writer / July 29, 2011



Washington

The Obama administration is quietly moving ahead on the groundwork for a possible civilian nuclear trade agreement with Saudi Arabia – an agreement that could prove to be the most controversial of a string of such US deals in recent years.

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The US plans to hold what State Department officials are calling “exploratory talks” in Riyadh next week to gauge Saudi objectives behind their interest in a civilian nuclear deal. The US also wants to explore whether the Saudi government would accept restrictions to ensure its nuclear fuel is used purely for civilian purposes, according to congressional sources.

The US has recently concluded civilian nuclear trade deals – or so-called “123” agreements – with India and the United Arab Emirates and is in advanced discussions with countries including Jordan, Vietnam, and South Korea.

But Saudi Arabia’s interest in such an accord has raised intense suspicions, particularly in the US Congress. "There aren't many countries you could come up with where people would be more energized in opposition to this kind of cooperation than this one," says one House staffer who was informed on the administration's planned talks, but could speak only on condition of anonymity, due to the fact that the talks have not yet been made public.

"It's an unstable country in an unstable region, and – fairly or unfairly – people think 9/11 when they think of Saudi Arabia. It would be an extremely hard sell," said the staffer.

The State Department first announced Saudi Arabia’s interest in gaining access to US nuclear technology for “medicine, industry, and power generation” in May 2008. US-Saudi relations have become considerably rockier since then, and some regional experts say it is important to keep that in mind when considering why the administration is proceeding with exploratory talks now.

"Remember, the administration is responding to the Saudis' request for these talks," says the House staffer. "This is a test, especially for the Saudis, of where our relations are at the moment."

Sensitivities to Israeli concerns about a nuclear-endowed Saudi Arabia are one reason. But perhaps even more worrisome is the Saudi kingdom’s deepening regional rivalry with Iran. Recent published comments by one member of the Saudi royal family suggested that, if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia would be forced to go the same route.

One question for next week’s talks is whether Saudi Arabia would be open to forswearing any right to nuclear fuel enrichment or reprocessing, according to congressional sources that could speak only on condition of anonymity, due to the fact that the talks have not yet been made public. That would, in effect, mean that Saudi Arabia would be committing to use for the nuclear fuel it would receive purely for civilian power.

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