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EXCLUSIVE: US-Saudi nuclear deal will face rough ride in Congress

Expert will tell US lawmakers that Riyadh must give up possibility of enriching uranium if it wants nuclear technology
US President Donald Trump with Saudi King Salman at summit in Riyadh, 21 May 2017 (AFP)

NEW YORK, United States – A US-Saudi deal for cooperating on civilian nuclear energy technology faces a rough ride in Congress unless Riyadh foregoes its right to enrich uranium, according to non-proliferation expert Henry Sokolski, who will brief lawmakers on Wednesday.

Sokolski will testify before a House Foreign Affairs Committee on the US-Saudi deal and seek to persuade lawmakers not to accept anything but a “gold standard" that forbids uranium enrichment for fear of fuelling a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

It should resemble the deal, known as a “123 agreement,” that the US struck with the United Arab Emirates a decade ago as Abu Dhabi laid plans for the four reactors that South Korea’s KEPCO is currently building there, Sokolski told Middle East Eye.

“Congress should be wary of any US nuclear deal with Riyadh that fails to ban Saudi enrichment and reprocessing as is required in the 2009 nuclear cooperative agreement with the UAE,” Sokolski will say, according to a draft of the testimony that he has shared with MEE.

The Saudis are interested in a nuclear weapons option that can be exercised, if needed, as soon as possible.

- Henry Sokolski, non-proliferation expert

“Failure to require Riyadh to forswear enriching or reprocessing in the text of a US-Saudi nuclear Agreement, either by excluding this condition or proposing to put a sunset on it, risks pouring kerosene on the embers of nuclear proliferation already present in the Middle East.”

Sokolski, executive director of the non-proliferation Policy Education Center, a research and advocacy group, will address this week’s House committee meeting alongside William Tobey, a Harvard University scholar, and Sharon Squassoni, from George Washington University.

Saudi Arabia is stepping up plans to build nuclear power plants and reduce its dependence on oil, part of a Vision 2030 reform agenda that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will discuss with US President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday.

The world’s top oil exporter previously said it wants nuclear know-how only for peaceful uses but has left unclear whether it also wants to enrich uranium to produce nuclear fuel, a process which can also be used to build atomic weapons.

On Sunday, 60 Minutes aired a pre-recorded interview with bin Salman, who also serves as Saudi defence minister, in which he said Riyadh “will follow suit as soon as possible” if its arch-rival Iran develops nuclear weapons.

According to Sokolski, the prince’s comments were “unprecedented”.

“These Saudi statements lay bare for all to see exactly what the security implications of failing to get Riyadh to forswear enriching and reprocessing will be,” he will say. “The Saudis are interested in a nuclear weapons option that can be exercised, if needed, as soon as possible.”

Saudi nuclear bids

Toshiba-owned US-based company Westinghouse is involved in one of the bids to build Saudi Arabia's first two nuclear reactors.

US firms cannot transfer nuclear technology to another country unless it signs a deal ruling out domestic uranium enrichment with Washington.

In past talks, Riyadh has declined to give up the possible ability to enrich uranium. This month, it approved a national policy for atomic energy, including limiting all nuclear activities to treaty-bound peaceful purposes.

On Monday, a White House official told reporters that Trump and bin Salman would discuss their nuclear cooperation plans among some $35bn of commercial deals to create 120,000 jobs for Americans.

“We continue to engage with our Saudi partners on their plans for [a] civil nuclear programme and possible United States supply of nuclear equipment, expertise and material,” said the official, on condition that his name was not used.

While the ultimate decision rests with Trump and top administration staff, congressional committees play a powerful oversight role and were effectively able to tighten the restrictions on the UAE in 2009, said Sokolski.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who chairs the subcommittee, noted that the administration and Riyadh were “moving full speed ahead” on nuclear cooperation and leaving lawmakers “mostly in the dark”.

The session will assess “the implications if the US agrees to a deal below the so-called gold standard, and legislative options to increase congressional oversight so that the US can ensure national security interests always take precedence over political or commercial” concerns, Ros-Lehtinen added.

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Reactors need uranium enriched to around five percent purity, but the same technology in this process can also be used to enrich the isotope to a higher, weapons-grade level. This has been at the heart of concerns over the nuclear programme of Iran, which enriches uranium domestically.

The alternative is for a country to import pre-enriched uranium.

US officials must think twice before risking a nuclear arms race in a region in which only Israel has nuclear weapons, Sokolski told MEE. Israel neither confirms nor denies whether it has a nuclear deterrent.

“If our government green lights such Saudi efforts by failing to uphold the gold standard, no one will be fooled as to what we are doing,” Sokolski will tell Ros-Lehtinen and other members of the Middle East and North Africa subcommittee.

“Instead of upholding the last 73 years of American and international efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons by tightening nuclear controls, our government will be doing just the opposite, playing a risky game of nuclear chicken between Riyadh and Tehran.”

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