A Nuclear Deal With A Difference – OpEd


Nuclear power is at the heart of on-going negotiations spanning the globe.  They involve the US, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, South Korea and Israel.  They certainly featured in the China-brokered agreement signed by Iran and Saudi Arabia on March 10 in Beijing.  Ending the current round of an antagonism spanning decades, the two nations agreed to resume diplomatic relations and to refrain from interfering in each other’s domestic affairs.  Nuclear power looms large in both countries’ domestic affairs. 

Some have been quick to discern a significant geopolitical shift flowing from the deal.  However, formally ending an altercation is one thing; eliminating a deeply rooted feud is another.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been rivals for regional dominance ever since Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979.  With Islam’s two supreme holy places, Mecca and Medina, within its borders, Saudi dominates the Muslim world and is the undoubted leader of the Sunni branch of the religion.  The Iranian ayatollahs, standard bearers for the Shia interpretation of Islam, challenge Saudi Arabia’s supremacy and are dedicated to imposing Shi’ite observance not only on all Muslims, but eventually on the whole world. 

Politically, too, the two nations have long been at odds. Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the US may have been strained in recent years, but historically they are close partners.  The Iranian regime, on the other hand, is founded on a profound distaste for America, dubbed by its first Supreme Leader “the Great Satan”. Saudi and Iran oppose each other also in the proxy conflicts raging in Syria and Yemen – indeed, the Houthis have fired literally hundreds of Iranian missiles and drones from Yemen into the heart of the Saudi capital, Riyadh.  

The Iranian regime probably aspired to become a nuclear power from its very beginning, but it was only in 2002 that a leading opposition party published evidence showing that the Iranian government was building nuclear facilities in Natanz.  In 2003, after the Iranian government formally acknowledged the facilities, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspected them.  They found a more advanced nuclear program than anticipated by US intelligence, and issued the first of a series of reports accusing Iran of not declaring sensitive enrichment and reprocessing activities.

From the moment Iran’s nuclear ambitions became crystal clear, Saudi Arabia began investigating the possibility of itself acquiring a nuclear capability. Since then it has been on a determined search.

The kingdom started by negotiating the purchase of nuclear capability from an outside source.  In 2006 the media reported agreements between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.  It was widely believed that they had agreed that should the Gulf be threatened, Pakistan would supply nuclear missiles and warheads in a matter of days.  In November 2013 the BBC reported that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia were sitting ready for delivery. 

Not in the least fooled by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which supposedly constrained and controlled Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), announced in May 2018 that if Iran did indeed manufacture a nuclear arsenal, “we will follow suit as soon as possible”. Backing this report came a statement publicizing the fact that Saudi Arabia has large deposits of uranium in its deserts, and claiming it has adopted a plan to extract it before 2030. 

On January 11, 2023 this was confirmed.  Saudi energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, told a mining conference in Riyadh that the kingdom “intends to utilize its national uranium resources.”  He said this includes “the entire nuclear fuel cycle which involves the production of yellowcake, low enriched uranium and the manufacturing of nuclear fuel both for our national use and of course for export.”  He did not specify the level to which it would enrich its uranium, or whether it intended to reach weapons grade purity.

It is now confirmed that Saudi Arabia holds up to 5% of the world’s current uranium reserves, and has reportedly involved China in exploiting its nuclear technology.  Prince Abdulaziz said that developing a nuclear power industry could provide the country with “energy security” and, in line with Saudi Vision 2030, an alternative to oil.

Recent reports, which include satellite images, indicate that Saudi’s first research reactor – not a working reactor – has been constructed.  Also a facility for extracting yellowcake from uranium ore has been built, with China’s help, near the remote but historic town of Al-Ula, a world heritage site.

Despite its long search for a nuclear military capability, Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program is still in need of active development, and two potential partners have emerged – China and South Korea.

Already in the pipeline was South Korea’s bid to participate in an early project to construct  Saudi Arabia’s first-ever nuclear power plant, a project originally estimated at $10bn (NIS 36 billion).  This has been overtaken by a new initiative from MBS which, originally envisaging the construction of 16 reactors, has been scaled back two initial working reactors.  

Of the most credible investors, South Korea’s Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) was the keenest, building on the strong relationship arising from MBS’s visit to Seoul on November 16, 2022.  He and South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol signed no less than 26 investment agreements reportedly worth $75 billion (NIS 207 billion).  

However MBS seems to prefer China as his first pick to partner the new nuclear project. On January 24 he was reported to be wooing China to take the lead in reviving what is described as a “civil nuclear industry project on Saudi land”.  

However a deal between Saudi Arabia and China would not be welcome in Washington.  The US has no desire to see China expand its influence in the Middle East.  

As regards the South Korean alternative, the journal Intelligence Online has pointed out that, because KEPCO’s technology is partially shared with the American manufacturer Westinghouse, the Korean company is under the control of US export authorities.  That means the project could not pass without approval from Congress, where Saudi Arabia has some harsh critics.

An important piece in the jigsaw is that President Joe Biden would welcome Saudi Arabia formally committing itself to the Abraham Accords.  Opening the way for Saudi to achieve its long-time goal of a domestic nuclear energy industry could be the US input for a deal that enhances Saudi-Israeli relations for the benefit of the whole Middle East.

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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