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.
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The United Arab Emirates (UAE) accepted nonproliferation commitments in its 2009 agreement with the US – no domestic uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing rights. The State Department henceforth declared this the “gold standard” for such agreements.Skip to next paragraph
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But earlier this year the State department appeared to step back from that declaration and deemed such nonproliferation commitments desirable but not absolute requirements.
Word of the Riyadh talks – the administration is required by law to inform Congress of advances in nuclear-trade deals – comes as Congress considers legislation that would complicate the approval process for nuclear pacts that do not include strict nonproliferation provisions.
A House bill co-sponsored by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida and Howard Berman (D) of California calls for affording preferential treatment to 123 agreements that include provisions like those accepted by the UAE. The bill would also make it easier for Congress to block agreements without such commitments.
Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday she was "astonished" the administration "is even considering" nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia. She said the idea made passage of her bill all the more urgent.
"This proposal is a compelling argument for quick passage of ... the bipartisan legislation I have co-authored to give Congress a direct role in approving nuclear cooperation agreements that are now determined almost entirely by the executive branch," she said in a statement.
The administration has said it opposes the legislation. The State Department concluded earlier this month that the bill would make the nuclear-cooperation accords less attractive and would thus limit “our influence over others’ nuclear programs.”
Indeed, one of the concerns the administration will have to consider is that a Saudi Arabia spurned by the US may look elsewhere for nuclear technology. But congressional experts say even a Saudi commitment to accept nonproliferation controls is not likely to budge Congress in favor of a nuclear accord.
"it would make it easier, but it would still be extremely difficult," says the staffer. "You can't change the basic objections to Saudi Arabia no matter what you do."
Information about the talks next week first leaked out of a teleconference that US Ambassador to Riyadh James Smith held with US business leaders earlier this month, according to congressional sources. Ambassador Smith reportedly told the conference that preliminary talks would begin soon, and that led officials on the Hill to begin inquiring with the State Department.
The US will assess the Saudi positions that come out of the talks before determining whether to launch formal negotiations. According to one Senate source, the US would also consult with Israel before any formal decision to conclude a nuclear deal with the Saudis.