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Israel opposes easing US nuclear non-proliferation standards for Riyadh

Israel's energy minister says Saudi Arabia should not be allowed to enrich uranium domestically
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has threatened to pursue nuclear weapons if Iran acquires them (Reuters)

After meeting with officials of US President Donald Trump's administration, Israel's energy minister expressed confidence on Tuesday that the United States will not relax non-proliferation standards in any nuclear power deal it agrees with Saudi Arabia.

Israel vehemently opposes any effort by Saudi Arabia to relax "gold standard" non-proliferation limits on enriching uranium or reprocessing nuclear fuel in any deal between the two countries, Yuval Steinitz, Israel's energy minister, told Reuters in an interview.

"Once you allow one country to enrich uranium or reprocess fuel, it will be extremely difficult to tell other countries in this vicinity or elsewhere in the world not to do so," he said.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has threatened to pursue nuclear weapons if Iran acquires them.

"Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible," he told CBS in March.

Steinitz, in Washington for the World Gas Conference, met this week with people in the Trump administration about Saudi Arabia's quest to build at least two nuclear power stations with the help of US technology. He did not identify whom he met with.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East that possesses nuclear weapons although it has acted coy about acknowledging its military nuclear capabilities.

US Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been working with Saudi Arabia on a civilian nuclear agreement that could allow the kingdom to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium, practices that non-proliferation advocates worry could one day be covertly altered to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have formal diplomatic relations, but they have become de-facto allies against Iran.

If the United States allows Saudi to relax the standards, "then you deteriorate the non-proliferation effort, so I am confident the Americans would listen to our concern," Steinitz said.

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Steinitz said Israel would support Saudi Arabia's development of nuclear power only if it included the gold standard protections and if the kingdom purchases uranium from the United States.

By adhering to the gold standard, countries forego the right to domestically enrich uranium or reprocess fuel to purchase nuclear technology from US companies.

Saudi Arabia's neighbour and close ally, the United Arab Emirates, has voluntarily submitted to the gold standard in its nuclear programme. The UAE acquires its nuclear capabilities from the US in a deal known as the 123 Agreement.

Saudi Arabia has said if it does not get US assistance to build reactors it could turn to other international partners. The kingdom is also in talks with companies from Russia, China, South Korea and other countries on nuclear power.