Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

A Poorly Negotiated Saudi Nuclear Deal Could Damage Future Regional Relationships

| Feb. 05, 2018

Is it possible to have nuclear power without such regional fear and loathing?

As George Orwell once observed, some ideas are so absurd that only the intelligentsia could hold them; ordinary people would not be so foolish. A case in point is a reported proposal to allow the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium and reprocess spent reactor fuel—two activities that could bring it within weeks of acquiring nuclear weapons—under a developing civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

Cutting such a deal should seem too reckless to be real. Unfortunately, it’s not. Last November, at an International Atomic Energy Agency conference in Abu Dhabi, Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy Edward McGinnis announced that the United States was eager to “spur exports of nuclear energy plants and equipment” to Saudi Arabia. Four weeks later, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry flew to Riyadh, met with Saudi energy minister Khalid Al-Falih, and declared that the United States and Saudi Arabia would soon “move forward” to conclude a formal U.S. nuclear cooperative agreement. Trump administration officials then confirmed, in briefings on Capitol Hill in early December and January, that U.S. negotiators may not insist that Saudi Arabia renounce enrichment and reprocessing as part of a proposed nuclear cooperation agreement.

What’s behind such dangerous dealing? Publicly, officials say it is to promote U.S. nuclear exports under the Westinghouse banner. Westinghouse, though, is now bankrupt, owned for the moment by a Japanese company, and has been sold to a Canadian asset manager, pending regulatory approval. The odds of Westinghouse (or Russian, Chinese, Japanese or French reactor vendors) winning a Saudi contract against a bid by South Korea—the only country building a proven reactor design roughly on schedule and on budget across the Saudi border in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—are slim to none.

Why would the United States contemplate a nuclear cooperation agreement that permitted Saudi Arabia to obtain the means of producing fissile material? The answer whispered by some reflects what they see as yet another flaw in the Obama administration’s nuclear deal. “We let Iran enrich uranium; it’s only fair to let the Saudis do the same.” Implicit but unspoken is the hope that once developed, a Saudi nuclear-weapons option would deter the Iranians from ever making bombs.

Welcome to the unreal world of Washington realism. What’s particularly weird is that President Trump thinks the Iran deal is “the worst deal ever” because it allows Iran to get very close to a nuclear-weapons capability as limitations begin to expire eight years from now, but people who work for him are contemplating a deal that would permit Saudi Arabia to do the same.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sokolski, Henry and William H. Tobey.“A Poorly Negotiated Saudi Nuclear Deal Could Damage Future Regional Relationships.” The National Interest, February 5, 2018.

The Authors