The Middle East’s nuclear technology clock is ticking as nations pursue peaceful capabilities that potentially leave the door open to future military options.
Concern about a nuclear arms race is fuelled by uncertainty over the future of Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement, a seeming US willingness to weaken its strict export safeguards in pursuit of economic advantage, and a willingness by suppliers such as Russia and China to ignore risks involved in weaker controls.
The Trump administration was mulling loosening controls to facilitate a possible deal with Saudi Arabia as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a powerful Israeli lobby group in Washington. He urged US President Donald J. Trump to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal unless the Islamic republic agrees to further military restrictions and makes more political concessions.
Israel has an undeclared nuclear arsenal of its own and fears that the technological clock is working against its long-standing military advantage.
The US has signalled that it may be willing to accede to Saudi demands in a bid to ensure that US companies, with Westinghouse in the lead, have a stake in the kingdom’s plan to build 16 reactors with 17.6 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity.
In demanding parity with Iran by getting the right to control enrichment of uranium and the reprocessing of spent fuel into plutonium, potential building blocks for nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia was backing away from a 2009 memorandum of understanding with the United States in which it pledged to acquire nuclear fuel from international markets.
“The trouble with flexibility regarding these critical technologies is that it leaves the door open to production of nuclear explosives,” warned nuclear experts Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski in an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
While Israeli opinion is divided on how the US should respond to Saudi’s demands, Trump and Netanyahu’s opposition to the Iranian nuclear accord has already produced results that would serve Saudi interests.
European signatories to the agreement are pressuring Iran to negotiate limits to its ballistic missile program and drop its support for such groups as Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah and Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran has rejected any renegotiation but has kept the door open to discussions about a supplementary agreement. Saudi Arabia has suggested it may accept tight US controls if Iran agrees to a toughening of its agreement with the international community.
The Trump administration recently allowed high-tech US exports to Iran that could boost international oversight of the nuclear deal. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan signed a waiver that allows a Maryland-based company to export broadband networks, satellite dishes, and wireless equipment to Iran for stations that monitor nuclear explosions in real time.
Iranian resistance to a renegotiation is strengthened by Europe’s and even the Trump administration’s admission that Hezbollah, despite being designated a terrorist organization by the US, is an undeniable political force in Lebanon. “We…have to recognize the reality that (Hezbollah) are also part of the political process in Lebanon,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the eve of visiting Beirut.
Any relaxation of US demands that Saudi Arabia adhere to tough safeguards enshrined in US export control laws—widely viewed as the gold standard—would open Pandora’s box.
The United Arab Emirates, the Arab nation closest to inaugurating its first nuclear reactor, has already said that it would no longer be bound by the safeguards it agreed to a decade ago if others in the region were granted a more liberal regime. So would countries like Egypt and Jordan that are negotiating contracts with non-US companies for construction of nuclear reactors. A US backing away from its safeguards in the case of Saudi Arabia would potentially add a nuclear dimension to the already full-fledged arms race in the Middle East.
The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) cautioned last year that the Iranian nuclear agreement had
“not eliminated the kingdom’s desire for nuclear weapons capabilities and even nuclear weapons… There is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns about the ending of the (Iranian agreement’s) major nuclear limitations starting after year tem of the deal or sooner if the deal fails.”
Rather than embarking on a covert program, the report predicted that Saudi Arabia would, for now, focus on building up its civilian nuclear infrastructure as well as a robust nuclear engineering and scientific workforce. This would allow the kingdom to take command of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle at some point in the future. Saudi Arabia has in recent years expanded graduate programs at its five nuclear research centres.
“The current situation suggests that Saudi Arabia now has both a high disincentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the short term and a high motivation to pursue them over the long term,” the report said.
Saudi officials have repeatedly insisted that the kingdom is developing nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes, such as medicine, electricity generation, and desalination of sea water. They said Saudi Arabia is committed to putting its future facilities under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Vietnam constitutes a precedent for application of less stringent US safeguards. The US settled for a non-binding Vietnamese statement of intent in the preamble of its agreement that Vietnam had no intention to pursue fuel cycle capabilities.
Tailoring Saudi demands of parity with Iran could be addressed, according to former senior US non-proliferation official Robert Einhorn, by sequencing controls to match timelines in the Iranian nuclear agreement. This could involve:
Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir recently raised the stakes by declaring that the kingdom was engaged in talks with ten nations about its nuclear program, including Russia and China—nations that impose less stringent safeguards but whose technology is viewed as inferior to that of the US.
To strengthen its position, Saudi Arabia has added Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, an international law firm specialized in energy regulation, to its army of lobbyists and public relations firms in Washington, in a bid to ensure it gets a favourable agreement with the United States.
“Allowing Moscow to gain a nuclear foothold in Saudi Arabia would deal a serious blow to US. regional influence and prestige,” warned the Washington-based Arabia Foundation’s Ali Shihabi.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of Internation-al Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. He is author of a forthcoming book on China.