Giving Riyadh A Permissive Nuclear Deal: A Sure-Fire Way to Get Burned
By Henry Sokolski
Today, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih met in London to hash out a civil nuclear cooperative agreement that would leave the door open for the Kingdom to enrich uranium and separate plutonium — two activities that could bring it to the brink of bomb making. In exchange, the United States aims to get Westinghouse, a foreign-owned firm headquartered in Pennsylvania, a chance to bid on two power reactors the Saudis hope to build.
As noted in the piece “Don’t Give Saudi Arabia An Easy Path to Nukes” that Victor Gilinsky and I just published in Foreign Policy, the debate over this deal has so far missed the most important point. It’s not that whether it’s fair to restrict the Saudis more than Iran, or whether the Russians and Chinese might win the nuclear bid and gain influence over the Kingdom. It’s that allowing the Kingdom to enrich and reprocess is a sure-fire way to get burned.
The reason why has to do with the Saudi regime itself and its past behavior. It has secretly helped finance Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. It has acquired nuclear capable missiles without letting us know; missiles that only make military sense if they are nuclear-armed.
Then, there’s 9/11. The extent of Saudi official involvement is unclear but Donald Trump himself, when asked in a February 2016 Fox interview, “Who blew up the World Trade Center?” replied “It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was Saudi — take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents.” Later that year, Congress saw enough merit in that view to override President Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act that allowed 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi state. Saudi support for Wahhabism has been a major driver of Islamic violent extremism. None of this should be ignored.
In short, we should not let our current infatuation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or his much advertised reforms (including his decision to let women drive) get the better of our long-term security requirements. As noted in our piece, what is more important than the Crown Prince’s efforts to modernize, is his disastrous decision to wage war against Yemen and his strong-arm extra legal tactics to milk billions from some of Saudi Arabia’s richest individuals. He may turn out to be a long-lived friend (but, like the Shah of Iran, who also got US help to start his nuclear program, the Crown Prince may fall and could be succeeded by others decidedly less friendly). Whoever comes after the Crown Prince will inherit any nuclear materials or technology he might acquire. For all these reasons and more, we conclude that it is essential that our government insist on nothing less than the “Gold Standard” nonproliferation conditions Washington secured with Saudi Arabia’s neighbor, the United Arab Emirates — a legally binding commitment not to enrich or reprocess.
Some experts have suggested that this is unnecessary, that instead Washington can settle for a version of the Iran deal — making sure that Riyadh does not engage in these activities for several more years (or at least not before Iran does). This, they claim, would “kick the can down the road.” The key problem with this approach (besides emulating a deal that President Trump says he “hates”) is that by the time Washington needs to extend this moratorium with the Saudis, it will be virtually impossible to do so. In the next few years, the UAE, Turkey, and Egypt are almost certain to ask for the same terms for their nuclear cooperation with the United States. All either have agreements that are soon up for renewal or have explicit options to consult to amend their agreements if the US should strike a more generous deal with any of their neighbors. If this occurs, by the time Iran is free of most of its restrictions to enrich, a perfect nuclear proliferation storm will be ready to play itself out.
This is well worth avoiding and why sticking to the Gold Standard in negotiations with the Kingdom is the surest way to avoid the worst.