While attending a conference in Abu Dhabi on Monday, Saudi Arabi’s energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, told attendees that Saudi Arabia was “cautiously” proceeding ahead with plans to enrich uranium to use in two planned nuclear power reactors.
“We are proceeding with it cautiously … we are experimenting with two nuclear reactors,” Reuters quoted Salman as saying at the 24th World Energy Congress.
Saudi Arabia has long looked toward the possibility of nuclear power as a solution for its growing energy demands. However, in the highly volatile Middle East, enriching uranium for peaceful purposes opens the door to further enriching uranium up to weapons-grade levels, a plausibility that brought the end of Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018.
Most nuclear reactors are light-water reactors that use uranium enriched between three and five percent. The same technology used to enrich uranium for energy purposes is used to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels which typically use uranium enriched to 80% or more.
Under President Trump, the U.S. pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran Deal, originally signed in 2015 under President Obama. Under the deal, Iran agreed to limit enriching uranium to 3.67% as well as to reduce stockpiles of its enriched uranium.
President Trump was a fierce critic of the Iran Deal calling it “horrible” and “incompetent,” while also claiming that Iran was frequently in violation of the deal and enriching uranium beyond the deal’s limits.
Yet, Trump and the U.S. have never offered any proof that Iran was in violation of the deal. In fact, the agency responsible for monitoring the Iran Deal, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), confirmed in 15 consecutive reports that Iran was in compliance with the JCPOA.
Now Saudi Arabia is looking to enrich uranium likely to the same levels that Iran was enriching uranium to when the U.S. pulled out of the JCPOA. However, there is one crucial difference between the two nations’ nuclear programs. Unlike Iran and the U.S.’ volatile relationship, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have long been fervent allies (an alliance first formed under Nixon) thanks to a bond over oil, weapons and shared Middle East goals.
Iran and the U.S. have a complicated history beginning with the U.S. and U.K.-led coup and overthrowal of Iran’s democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953 and the subsequent 1979 Iranian Revolution that overthrew the U.S. backed monarchical rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
So while the U.S. has often condemned and cast a leery eye toward Iran’s nuclear power program, now, in the face of Saudi Arabia building its first two nuclear reactors, the U.S.’ reaction seems almost the polar opposite.
In March, the Daily Beast reported that the Trump administration had already secretly okayed six American companies to conduct nuclear-related work in Saudi Arabia. The month prior, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform opened an investigation into the Trump administration’s approval, looking into whether it rushed the sale of sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia and violated U.S. law by bypassing the required congressional approval.
According to the House report, under the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) “the U.S. may not transfer nuclear technology to a foreign country without the approval of Congress, in order to ensure that the agreement reached with the foreign government meets nine specific nonproliferation requirements.”
As Yasmeen Rasidi previously wrote for Citizen Truth, the congressional report said it was written in response to several whistleblowers who spoke up about the White House’s efforts to advance the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.
“The whistleblowers who came forward have warned of conflicts of interest among top White House advisers that could implicate federal criminal statutes,” Representative Elijah Cummings, the Democrat chairman of the committee, wrote in a letter to the White House in February of 2019.
Similarly, Trump has forced through the sale of billions in weapons to Saudi Arabia also bypassing or vetoing the necessary congressional approval. In July, Trump vetoed three bills passed by both the House and Senate which prohibited the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Previously, in May, Trump declared an emergency in order to bypass Congress and speed up the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
123 Agreement and Moving Forward
In order to move forward with supporting the Saudi Arabian nuclear reactors and uranium enrichment program, the U.S. is likely to insist that Saudi Arabia sign the “123 Agreement” – an agreement that binds the signatory to using its nuclear program for peaceful purposes only.
Such an agreement would allow U.S. companies to remain in the running to build and work on Saudi Arabia’s nuclear projects.
According to Reuters, Dan Brouillette, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, said as much at the Abu Dhabi conference.
“It’s important for us, with regards to U.S. technology, we’re going to pursue a 123 Agreement,” Brouillette said.
“We would like to see a 123 Agreement accompany any agreement to transfer U.S. technology or use U.S. technology in Saudi or any other place,” he added.
However, the same Reuters report claimed that progress on signing the deal has been limited because Saudi Arabia does not want to entirely rule out the possibility of enriching uranium to higher levels or reprocessing spent fuel – both potential paths to nuclear weapons.
The 123 Agreement has also been tossed around as a possibility for negotiating with Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham told the Daily Beast in early August that he urged President Trump to put the 123 Agreement on the table with Iran.
“I told the president: Put the 123 on the table with the Iranians. Make them say ‘no,’” Graham told The Daily Beast. “I think the Iranians will say no. And I think that will force the Europeans’ hands.” So far, no such offer has been made.
Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Future
In March of 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told CBS News in an interview that if Iran builds a nuclear bomb, so will Saudi Arabia.
“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,” MBS stated in the televised interview.
While Saudi Arabia’s true nuclear weapons ambitions are unknown, Saudi Arabia is aiming to build as many as sixteen nuclear reactors by 2040 – a lucrative contract for any nuclear tech company.