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.
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.
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.
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.