Intelligence officials and issue analysts report signs that Saudi Arabia wants to develop a capacity to enrich uranium, despite proliferation concerns.
Riyadh is understood to be worried that world powers will agree to allow Iran to maintain some limited uranium-enrichment capability in a potential lasting deal on its nuclear program. Saudi Arabia has an established interest in developing an atomic-energy program, but its concerns about Iran could be causing the Persian Gulf kingdom to consider a more expansive domestic nuclear capability, the Daily Beast reported on Friday.
Institute for Science and International Security President David Albright told the news website he had learned from an unidentified European intelligence agency of Saudi Arabia's pursuit in recent years of the scientific and engineering expertise necessary to carry out activities in all parts of the nuclear fuel chain.
The full cycle for producing atomic fuel includes uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel -- two processes that could be used to create both more fuel for civil energy needs and fissile material suitable for powering warheads.
Albright said Riyadh was employing technical experts capable of constructing the centrifuge cascades required to enrich uranium.
"They view the developments in Iran very negatively," he said. "They have money, they can buy talent, they can buy training."
"The Saudis are thinking through how do you create a deterrent through capability," said Albright, a physicist and onetime weapon inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency.
An anonymous Obama administration official told the Daily Beast, "The logical response of any of Iran's neighbors to an agreement that severely restricted Iran's program ... is not to build up a proto-military capability in enrichment, it's rather to go in the opposite direction."
At the Munich Security Conference earlier this month, former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal suggested that if Tehran retained a uranium-enrichment ability in a final nuclear deal, then Riyadh and other Arab governments could pursue enrichment programs of their own.
"I think we should insist on having equal rights for everybody, this is part of the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] arrangement," he said.
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