The US continues its backdoor negotiations to broker a deal to help establish diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia—a potential game changer in the geopolitics of the Middle East.
One of the demands of the Saudis is US assistance to set up “a civilian nuclear program” in Saudi Arabia.
According to the New York Times of August 18, the Saudis are seeking a partnership “that would allow the country to enrich its uranium, a demand that if it were to exceed the tight restrictions outlined in the Atomic Energy Act, would require the approval of both the US Senate and the House of Representatives”.
What are the potential risks—considering the rumored Saudi long-term goal of being a nuclear power? Could this be the beginning of such a goal?
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat from Connecticut, and a longstanding critic of Saudi Arabia, was quoted as saying: “There is the clear and present danger that nuclear technology can be used for military purposes, which would be perceived by Iran as destabilizing the region, and maybe a reason for some kind of strike or other aggression.”
“I don’t think the (Biden) administration is under any illusions about how difficult or significant the obstacles might be,” he warned.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir, a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University (NYU), told IDN the US-Saudi negotiations over the building of a nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes in Saudi Arabia should be considered in the context of the other two Saudi requirements, namely a security guarantee as well as the ability to purchase advanced weapons systems from the US.
“Reaching an agreement on these requirements with some modification will certainly facilitate an agreement on the nuclear front,” he said.
Whereas the two sides may well find a middle ground and agree on enhanced security collaboration and the sale of advanced weaponry, he argued, the US is unlikely to agree to allow the Saudis to enrich their uranium.
“Although Saudi Arabia can turn to Russia or China to build the nuclear facilities, the Saudis prefer American partnership, albeit it comes with far greater restrictions than Russia or China might require,” said Dr Ben-Meir, who teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.
This preference, he said, is due to the US and Saudi Arabia’s longstanding security collaboration, which goes back decades, as well as the fact that their entire military hardware apparatus consists of US-manufactured equipment.
Neither Russia nor China can replace the US
This is why they want the building of nuclear facilities to be part and parcel of an overall deal with the US, as neither Russia nor China can replace the US in either category, and the Saudis know that, he noted.
“Based on what we know thus far, if the US were to agree to allow the Saudis to enrich their own uranium, it would be strictly monitored by the US; International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards would also be established to ensure non-proliferation”.
This provision, however, might be considered several years down the line, but there is no certainty that that might happen. In the interim, the US will insist on the transfer, reprocessing, and enrichment of uranium under US control to verify the peaceful purpose of the nuclear program and leave no room for the development of nuclear weapons. Congress may go along with such an arrangement.
It should be noted, said Dr Ben-Meir, that the UAE operates three nuclear reactors, but it does not enrich its uranium. Egypt is in the process of building nuclear facilities designed especially for energy and desalination, with similar restrictions as the UAE.
He added that there is no evidence or reliable information to suggest that the Saudis are seeking to become a nuclear power.
That said, the Saudis want to have nuclear facilities on their soil to be sort of “on par” with Iran and provide them the prestige they need to complement their regional leadership role and be recognized as an important player on the international stage, he declared.