WASHINGTON -- A senior U.S. State Department official insisted that a nuclear trade pact now under negotiation with Saudi Arabia would not “in any way” advance an atomic weapons capability, which members of the nation’s royal family have said they could seek in response to neighboring rival Iran.
Riyadh “is, by all definitions, a serious partner and we will negotiate with it as such,” Thomas Countryman, the assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation, said in an exclusive interview.
“I don’t know anybody who believes that it would be a wise idea for Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons,” he told Global Security Newswire in late June. “And I’m confident that any civil nuclear cooperation we agree would not in any way contribute [to] or encourage such a goal.”
U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, though, have voiced concern for years. Worries have heightened over the past several months as informal talks about the United States sharing sensitive nuclear technologies, materials and guidance have advanced into formal U.S.-Saudi negotiations and marketing visits.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to the United States and a member of the ruling family, has warned repeatedly that his nation could develop or buy atomic arms to counter Israel’s suspected arsenal or Iran’s possible development of one. Saudi King Abdullah has similarly been cited as vowing to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran succeeds in doing so.
Were the Obama administration to conclude a nuclear cooperation pact with Saudi Arabia, “it’s going to make a lot of people in Washington -- in Congress, specifically -- very nervous about exporting nuclear technology and know-how,” Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, said earlier this year. “It should be of particular concern because of uncertainty in Saudi Arabia arising from the Arab Spring.”
During Obama’s first term, senior Energy Department leaders are said to have pressed for the negotiation of a nuclear cooperation accord with Saudi Arabia that does not include special nonproliferation provisions that the U.S. atomic energy industry sees as discouraging business opportunities.
In response, State Department leaders have said they intend to model any nuclear trade accord with Middle East partners -- and perhaps selected pacts beyond that delicate region, as well -- on a 2009 agreement with the United Arab Emirates, in which Abu Dhabi pledged not to make nuclear fuel on its own soil.
A State Department spokesman at the time called the UAE action the “gold standard" for nonproliferation, because forsaking uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing is believed to lower the risk that a nation could develop an illicit nuclear arms capability, as Iran is widely believed to be doing.
Countryman, in the interview last month, said Washington is “discussing” with Riyadh a commitment similar to the UAE promise not to engage in nuclear fuelmaking, despite some earlier indications that the Saudis were not amenable to the idea.
The State Department figure also addressed an array of other security and proliferation issues affecting the Middle East, including the challenge that an emerging Iranian nuclear arms capacity could pose to the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime, of which Tehran remains a member nation; the possible resumption of atomic trade negotiations with Jordan; and a continued threat of chemical attacks in Syria’s two-year-old civil war.
On the latter topic, Countryman subsequently said via a spokeswoman that U.S. aid to Syria’s opposition includes chemical protective gear and medical treatments.
“We remain very concerned about the humanitarian consequences of a chemical weapons event” and the U.S. Agency for International Development, an arm of the State Department, “is focused on supporting treatment for survivors,” he told GSN by e-mail. “This includes providing necessary antidotes, as well as personal protection equipment and training for medical personnel.”
He added: “Protective equipment is necessary to ensure medical personnel can respond, and training is essential to ensure medical personnel are aware of precautionary measures and treatment protocols and utilize the most effective method of response.”
In the first part of the interview, published on Friday, Countryman addressed prospects for convening international talks about banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East. Edited excerpts of the second section of the June 26 session, held in the diplomat’s Foggy Bottom office, follow.
GSN: Given states such as North Korea pulling out of the Nonproliferation Treaty, and Iran seemingly flouting its NPT membership by the actions it’s taking, is now the time to think about a new regime or a way to somehow make this one more healthy? Or are we doing just fine?
Countryman: Historically, the NPT is a fantastic success. It has served to greatly restrict the number of countries that have chosen to pursue a nuclear weapons program. It is healthy.
But the greatest danger to its health is the continuation of Iran’s program. If Iran succeeds -- despite its NPT membership -- in building an arsenal of nuclear weapons, I fear that that would be a near-fatal blow for the NPT.
GSN: Would it be a near-fatal blow if Iran just walks up to that line and develops a turnkey capacity to develop nuclear weapons?
Countryman: It would not be healthy.
GSN: Back to the heart of the question, is now the time to address this type of nonproliferation risk in other ways? Perhaps seeking a new stick, a new regime, a new way of enforcement?
Countryman: No. The NPT has always relied upon the determination of its members to do what they’ve committed to do. Iran has chosen to ignore its obligations, not only under the NPT but under the United Nations Security Council and under the International Atomic Energy Agency.
If other members of the NPT ignore Iran’s actions, that’s what will lead to a far more dangerous situation in the world.
The NPT has the tools to ensure that Iran cannot succeed, if member states are determined to stand up for the principles that they embraced as signatories of the NPT.
GSN: So your view is that it is not time, then, to look for a new approach because this regime has all the tools you need at this time?
Countryman: It does.
GSN: And would it be time for reassessment if we conclude sometime in the future that Iran has either a turnkey capacity or actual nuclear weapons?
Countryman: I would prefer never to get to that stage to answer that question.
GSN: Would the United States, by policy, offer a nuclear umbrella to Iran’s neighbors if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapons capacity? In particular, I’m thinking about Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two close allies of the United States, neither of whom would Washington like to see develop their own nuclear arsenals?
Countryman: Too hypothetical for me.
GSN: Is there anything you can say about nuclear guarantees for U.S. friends in the Middle East?
Countryman: The focus of our policy is in preventing Iranian capability to construct nuclear weapons. Full stop.
GSN: On Jordan, there was some discussion that nuclear trade talks were on hold for some temporary period because of the Arab Spring and all the events in the region, including Syria. Is that still the status or has there been renewed engagement on a U.S. civil atomic energy agreement with them?
Countryman: We’ve had preliminary discussions with Jordan and we’re prepared to resume those in the future.
GSN: Am I correct in thinking that they’re on hold because of events in the region, or is there some other reason?
Countryman: I think you’d have to ask the Jordanians that question.
GSN: Onto discussions about a U.S.-Saudi Arabia nuclear trade pact: This is an interesting case because of statements by Saudi royal family members indicating an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, if Iran develops such a capability. What are your thoughts about the advisability of the U.S. potentially concluding a civil nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia in light of the public comments?
Countryman: Well, the thing about public comments is you can get almost anybody to say almost anything. That’s not what guides our approach to civil nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has demonstrated need for nuclear power. It is developing the infrastructure to manage it effectively and [has] got the financial resources to make it happen.
It is, by all definitions, a serious partner and we will negotiate with it, as such.
I don’t know anybody who believes that it would be a wise idea for Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons. And I’m confident that any civil nuclear cooperation we agree would not in any way contribute [to] or encourage such a goal.
GSN: Is that a nation where it’s clear that the United States would demand, as a condition of the agreement, the inclusion of a no-domestic-fuelmaking pledge?
Countryman: We’re discussing that.
GSN: What is the United States prepared to offer in terms of aid to victims of Syrian chemical attacks -- either victims that already have suffered or those who might be affected by future attacks? For instance, is Washington prepared to offer any sort of medical treatment, aid, or bringing victims out for treatment in the West?
Countryman: First off, the United States has been the most generous contributor to alleviating a humanitarian disaster caused by the regime in Syria. We’ve provided over $800 million in humanitarian assistance since the beginning of the crisis. The president just announced an additional $300 million in lifesaving humanitarian assistance for food, shelter [and] medical care.
We are helping more than 3 million people across Syria, in all the governorates of Syria, and in refugee camps outside. And we’ll continue to do that.
The question of assistance to individual victims of chemical weapons attacks is a different question. The United States and a number of other advanced countries have, of course, the medical capability to help. We pray and we act in order that there not be large-scale chemical weapons attacks that would demand that kind of large-scale medical intervention from outside countries.
GSN: In terms of the aid that has gone over or is in the process of being provided, does that specifically include aid to victims of chemical attacks? Or have these victims largely been treated within the nation and not by the West?
Countryman: Because of the job I hold, I think primarily about chemical weapons when I think about Syria. But if you step back, you look at the estimates provided by our intelligence experts that a couple of hundred people have been the victims of small-scale chemical attacks by the regime, and you compare it to 80,000 deaths caused by the conflict, caused by the war of the regime against its own people, I just don’t think it’s the central question.
It is absolutely appropriate that the United States focus on the bigger picture in the immediate human suffering inside Syria, and in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere.
GSN: Of course we hope that the sort of large-scale attack you mentioned a moment ago will never occur. But if it does, can you say what kind of aid the United States and its allies would be able to provide? For instance, we’ve sometimes seen U.S. Navy hospital ships deploy abroad to help respond to natural disasters. Is that an option here?
Countryman: We think about it, we make plans. I’ve got no details for you.
Editor’s Note: Watch for the final installment of this three-part interview on Tuesday.