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Commentary | 19 October 2023

After Hamas: Rationales and dilemmas for US-Saudi nuclear agreement persist

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Mark Hibbs |Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Deterrence Diplomacy Energy Foreign policy Iran Middle East Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Security Nuclear Weapons Global Security

The United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) have for over a decade negotiated without success the terms of an agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation. These negotiations have intensified recently in the context of US efforts to broker a normalisation agreement between the KSA and Israel, which have included discussions about how the US could solidify its own support for Saudi Arabia. On the 7th of October 2023, Hamas terrorists appeared to drive a stake through the heart of the US effort to broker Israel-KSA normalisation. This has sent shockwaves through the region, and the full implications remain uncertain. However, it seems likely that in the longer run, rationales for normalisation and for US nuclear engagement with Riyadh will remain, reflecting the fact that the Hamas attacks underscored that a future nuclear-armed Iran would be a yet more formidable adversary for both Israel and the KSA.

Under either a Democratic or a future Republican administration, the US is likely to continue its efforts to promote normalisation and to further seek peaceful nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia.  The US has concluded such agreements with 23 countries. In the case of the KSA, the sticking point is Washington’s failure to condition nuclear cooperation upon an agreement by the KSA not to enrich uranium.

The US has urged the KSA to restrain its nuclear development for compelling reasons. The KSA is party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), a virtually universal treaty that in 1970 set baseline rules to prevent the spread of nuclear arms. The NPT forbids non-nuclear weapons states like the KSA to obtain nuclear weapons. It does not require any state to foreclose its option to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, reflecting a bygone era when a tiny handful of states alone possessed the technology to enrich uranium to weapons-grade. In the meantime, these states’ enrichment know-how has been stolen, disseminated, and used by non-nuclear weapon states for making nuclear weapons. Iran today does not have nuclear weapons, but it has used misappropriated enrichment technology to develop a latent nuclear weapons capability. The KSA says that if Iran crosses the line and makes nuclear arms, it will do the same.

The US has been increasingly challenged to discourage that eventuality since it began negotiations on nuclear cooperation with the KSA in 2017. So far, no agreement has been reached. During the last decade, the context for these negotiations has evolved on several fronts:

  • The salience of the KSA’s warnings that it might cheat or quit the NPT magnified in the wake of the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to unilaterally withdraw from the JCPOA in 2018. In response, Iran resumed aggressive centrifuge enrichment development and has failed to comply with NPT safeguards obligations.
  • Geostrategic competition pitting the US against China and Russia has become a complicating factor in pending KSA decision-making about its future nuclear cooperation partners. Both China and Russia have expanded their strategic focus in the Middle East; both are perceived in the West as courting Iran and Arab states with nuclear cooperation on terms that do not exceed minimum NPT requirements. Riyadh is aware of the commercial and national security risks should it invite these states to participate in establishing this strategically significant industry in the KSA. But should the US not participate in the KSA’s nuclear development because it failed to oblige Riyadh not to enrich uranium, other vendor states, led off by Russia and China, would raise no such programmatic obstacles to doing business with Riyadh.
  • Following agreements brokered by the US in 2020 leading to the normalisation of relations between Israel and both Bahrain and the UAE, President Joe Biden has encouraged the KSA to formally recognise Israel and normalise relations. During 2023 the three states have held talks toward achieving this goal. Washington may view these discussions as an opportunity to rejuvenate its stymied nuclear cooperation negotiation and attempt to conclude a “more for more” nuclear agreement with Riyadh. Such an understanding might obligate Riyadh to demonstrate greater nuclear transparency—by agreeing to an Additional Protocol and to voluntary disclosures such as those Iran agreed to in 2015, perhaps even a commitment not to indigenously enrich uranium—provided the US accommodate the KSA’s quest for assurances that would reduce its national security threats.

According to some observers and unconfirmed US media accounts, during 2023 participants in US-KSA-Israel discussions have raised the speculative possibility that US industry might, as part of a wide-ranging tripartite agreement, cooperate with the KSA on nuclear fuel processing and even uranium enrichment. In theory, this might permit KSA investment in an enrichment plant in the US or even construction and operation of a future black-box uranium enrichment plant in the KSA using US technology. The latter undertaking would provide the KSA a uranium enrichment capacity in the country without the US sharing enrichment technology with the KSA. The US government has not confirmed that it advocates any such proposal.

It is not certain that such a scheme would succeed, in part because the US nuclear industry (unlike European states and Russia) has no proven industrial track record of operation of gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment. The US years ago decommissioned long-serving uranium enrichment plants based on gaseous diffusion technology. Since then, US industry has designed and built centrifuges that are, compared to Russian and European models, very large, complex, and still undergoing licensing for operation.

On balance and barring unforeseen developments, for the US in 2023 the likely outcome of nuclear cooperation negotiations would appear to be more risk-laden than in 2017 when talks got underway. Washington may be more inclined to agree to less-satisfactory terms if it concludes doing that would prevent China and Russia from getting access to information and influence in KSA strategic decision making. But more favourable US terms for the KSA may also serve as legal grounds for the UAE to request a renegotiation of its 2009 agreement with the US, which obliges Abu Dhabi not to indigenously enrich uranium or reprocess irradiated reactor fuel.

What is virtually certain is that the US will not permit the transfer of US-obligated uranium enrichment technology to the KSA. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an association of 50 technology-holding states including the US, is committed to upholding guidelines that severely restrict uranium enrichment technology exports. Since establishment of the NSG in 1974, no participating government has ever agreed to transfer this know-how to any NPT non-nuclear weapon state, and there is no reason to conclude that that will change.

Perhaps the most likely, straightforward, risk-informed, and favourable outcome for the US would be for Washington to conclude a nuclear agreement with the KSA consistent with the substance of most previously concluded understandings, without an explicit requirement that the partner government sacrifice its nuclear fuel cycle technology options. In any event, and especially if the US were to offer the KSA a “chaperoned” path toward a future uranium enrichment capacity, a draft agreement will require US Congressional approval and, before that, rigorous interagency vetting by Executive Branch departments and other agencies, concerning the risks the agreement may pose to US national security interests, including nuclear non-proliferation.

It can therefore be expected that US agencies would, inter alia, pursue facts and inform on the record of a 1992 Russian transfer to China of two black-box centrifuge enrichment plants, including concerning the security of Russia’s uranium enrichment know-how in China. US agencies would also assess the risks associated with KSA-China nuclear cooperation; report on whether a broader US diplomatic agreement with the KSA and Israel, incorporating greater US commitments to the KSA, would significantly benefit US access to information about, and influence upon, Riyadh’s nuclear program; and assess potential hazards related to the KSA’s nuclear relations with Pakistan, a state which bears great responsibility for the proliferation of centrifuge enrichment technology that today looms large behind US-KSA negotiations.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / The White House