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Amid Gaza war, a beefed up Saudi nuke program is still on the table

Biden said recently that the Israeli normalization deal with the Gulf kingdom is still alive, and along with it will come serious proliferation risks.

Middle East

Speaking at a campaign event on October 20, President Biden clearly linked Hamas’s brutal surprise attack on Israel to the highly publicized normalization talks with Saudi Arabia, explaining, “One of the reasons Hamas moved on Israel … they knew that I was about to sit down with the Saudis.”

While the talks have since paused, the incentives for rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel still remain, assuming a wider war does not confound the present calculus.

Saudi Arabia reportedly stands to benefit from U.S. nuclear assistance and a potential defense pact if the deal goes through, which would represent a galactic shift in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Normalization was already a prized goal for Israel, but it is now highly incentivized to isolate Hamas from the Arab world by normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia and building on the Abraham Accords. And President Biden may view a breakthrough as his legacy achievement in the Middle East, given that the Iran nuclear deal is hanging by a thread.

As presently envisioned, the tripartite deal relies on the United States to grease the wheels for there to be any breakthrough in normalization talks. But it is some expensive grease. The United States and Saudi Arabia have spent a decade negotiating the limits of a nuclear power program to no avail, and Saudi leaders routinely threaten to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does.

Acceding to Saudi demands on this issue would represent a stark break in U.S. nonproliferation policy, but the transfer of enrichment technology is highly unlikely. Instead, the United States’ pursuit of influence over the program might result in concessions, allowing Riyadh access to enrichment capabilities without exerting control over them, unlike the situation with Iran. The measure of policy success should be the extent of knowledge and technology retained by Riyadh in the event of U.S. withdrawal.

Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Quest

Since its inception, the Saudi nuclear program has never been fully isolated from regional security dynamics. Saudi Arabia announced its nuclear ambitions in 2006 along with the heads of the other Gulf Cooperation Council members at a time when Washington was warming up to the idea of negotiating with Iran over its by-then halted military nuclear program. While the Saudis have played up the energy security angle, the initially quiet, and eventually explicit, message was that if Iran was allowed to maintain its nuclear program, then the Saudis must follow along in stride.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have tried to negotiate a nuclear cooperation agreement (NCA) since 2012. An NCA would provide assurances for the peaceful use of nuclear technology, and the key point of contentions has been over access to enrichment and reprocessing technology. If a state develops a latent nuclear capacity with ostensibly peaceful nuclear technology, the threat of proliferation can hang over all security interactions. Specifically, a state’s possession of uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing technologies determines its latent capacity to produce the fissile material for the core of a nuclear weapon, which is the challenge presently posed by Iran.

The Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations all eventually settled on requiring Saudi Arabia to forgo enrichment and reprocessing technology — also known as the “gold standard” which the UAE and Taiwan have adhered to — and to implement an Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog. The exact conditions are uncertain, but reports suggest that building an enrichment plant with Saudi investment, either in the U.S. or, as suggested by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace nuclear expert Mark Hibbs, a black-box centrifuge enrichment plant in Saudi Arabia but under complete U.S. control, is under discussion today.

Regarding safeguards, Saudi Arabia is finally in negotiations with the IAEA to grant nuclear inspectors access to sites where nuclear material may be present. For almost two decades, the country maintained minimal safeguards for its growing nuclear program. While it was not an imperative for Saudi Arabia to negotiate an Additional Protocol with the IAEA until it was prepared to handle large quantities of nuclear material, addressing these concerns earlier would have alleviated proliferation fears. Not doing so raised more questions about Riyadh’s intentions.

The Slippery Slope and the Role of Congress

Saudi Arabia views the Iran nuclear deal as the regional standard and argues that if Iran can maintain its enrichment program — even though the country suffers from crippling economic sanctions — then Riyadh should similarly be allowed access to the full nuclear fuel cycle. If the United States deviates from its long-standing nonproliferation policy and enables a path to Saudi enrichment, then the UAE will likely renegotiate the terms of its NCA, Turkey and Egypt may turn to Russia and China for enrichment plants, and the region may slide into a nuclear race.

However, Congress has a significant oversight role to play. It should sound strange that Congress gets the ultimate say in whether there is a normalization deal between two countries on the other side of the world, but Riyadh’s conditions of U.S. nuclear assistance will require congressional approval and a defense pact might require congressional approval. While any NCA would require congressional review, a defense pact, on the other hand, could come in many different forms.

For example, a NATO-style Article 5 commitment that an attack on one ally is considered an attack on all would require congressional ratification while a Bahrain-style Comprehensive Security Integration and Prosperity Agreement (C-SIPA) is an internationally binding agreement that does not require congressional ratification. The political lift and the role of Congress depends on the final shape of each condition. However, it is prudent to prepare for the scenario that U.S.-Saudi relations deteriorate; an imaginable scenario as U.S. lawmakers have called to withdraw troops over oil disputes as recently as last year, and presidential candidate Joe Biden said he would make them “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”

In an October 24 readout from the White House, President Biden and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman “affirmed the importance of working towards a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians as soon as the crisis subsides, building on the work that was already underway between Saudi Arabia and the United States over recent months.” Normalization talks may resume at some point, but it is crucial for the U.S. inter-agency process and Congress to prioritize long-term nonproliferation threats over meeting Riyadh’s immediate demands.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fist bumps U.S. President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Al Salman Palace, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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