Exclusive: Lawmakers threaten to derail US-Saudi nuclear deal

Exclusive: Lawmakers threaten to derail US-Saudi nuclear deal
Lawmakers in the US will seek to block a nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia unless Riyadh promises to rule out uranium enrichment, which could be carried out to weapons-grade level.
3 min read
21 March, 2018
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met Donald Trump this week [Getty]

US lawmakers will seek to block a civilian nuclear cooperation deal with Saudi Arabia unless Riyadh promises to forego the right to enrich uranium, for fear of stoking an arms race in the Middle East, The New Arab can reveal. 

In a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan this week, two influential members of Congress threatened to "introduce a resolution of disapproval" to block any agreement that lacks adequate safeguards, they said in a letter.

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 discussed with US President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday.

"The issue of enrichment and reprocessing as part of any nuclear cooperation agreement is a serious matter with national security implications and is amplified even more so when considering the proliferation risks in certain regions, like the Middle East," the lawmakers said in the letter. 

The authors hail from the two big parties. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a Florida Republican who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Brad Sherman is a California Democrat who has made waves in Washington with his broadsides against cryptocurrencies.

In the letter, they say that any US-Saudi deal should mirror the "123 Agreement", as nuclear cooperation deals are known, struck with the United Arab Emirates in 2009 that carried the "gold standard", in which Abu Dhabi relinquished the right to enrich and reprocess uranium.

"We urge you to press for the inclusion of binding commitments against enrichment and reprocessing in a Section 123 Agreement with Saudi Arabia. Failing this, we urge that you secure assurances in some form against the deployment of these sensitive technologies," the letter says.

"Without such commitments and assurances, we feel it may be necessary to introduce a resolution of disapproval, and given the severity of the matter, we also feel it necessary to introduce a legislative fix" by re-writing the Atomic Energy Act.

Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, previously said it wants nuclear technology 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 mass-casualty weapons.

Follow suit

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.

The US, South Korea, Russia, France and China are bidding on a multi-billion dollar tender to build the country's first two nuclear reactors. One bid involves a consortium that includes the Toshiba-owned US-based company Westinghouse.

US firms can typically transfer nuclear technology to another country only if Washington has signed a deal with that government ruling out domestic uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel – steps that can have military uses.

In past talks, Riyadh has refused to sign up to any deal that would deprive it of the possibility of one day enriching uranium. This month, it approved a national policy for atomic energy, including limiting all nuclear activities to treaty-bound peaceful purposes.

The ultimate decision rests with Trump and top aides, but congressional committees play a powerful oversight role and effectively tightened rules on the UAE in 2009, said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Non-proliferation Policy Education Center, a research group.

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.