WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is taking initial steps to negotiate a civil nuclear trade pact with Saudi Arabia that could lack key nonproliferation provisions included in a similar 2009 deal with one of Riyadh's Persian Gulf neighbors, according to U.S. officials and experts (see GSN, Nov. 3, 2010).
Critics are warning that the approach -- reportedly driven by Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman -- might signal Washington's tacit blessing for the Saudis to reprocess plutonium or enrich uranium on their soil. Such activities can be useful for atomic energy needs but also introduce the potential to advance a clandestine nuclear weapons effort.
"They've opened the nuclear tinderbox of the Middle East," one senior Republican congressional aide said last week. "They're playing with nuclear fire."
Many nonproliferation experts appear to agree, saying Washington currently has a unique opportunity to head off the further spread of nuclear weapons. However, they say, that opening could disappear if the Obama team fails to seize it.
In its 2009 nuclear trade agreement with the United States, the United Arab Emirates volunteered to forgo any domestic enrichment or reprocessing. The pact, initially signed by the Bush administration and later strengthened by the Obama team, also includes a disincentive for reversing course: it gives Washington the right to demand that its nuclear materials are returned if the Emirates were to abandon its pledge.
Last August, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley called the UAE nonproliferation provisions the "gold standard" for nuclear trade agreements that Washington negotiates with nations around the world.
Leading nonproliferation advocates have urged the White House to pursue a similar commitment to nonproliferation practices from Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries -- if not in other regions, as well. While the Mideast is widely regarded as an area of particular concern, Washington might be reluctant to adopt a policy that singles out Arab nations for stricter limits than those placed on other states, several issue experts noted.
"It goes to the argument over what is possible to achieve in nonproliferation on a global level," said one congressional source.
This staffer and several other Washington officials from both political parties were interviewed on condition of not being named in this story. They were not authorized to speak publicly about the simmering policy debate over global trade in sensitive nuclear materials.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill signaled their ire last summer after learning that the administration did not intend to advocate a renunciation of domestic enrichment and reprocessing in negotiating nuclear trade deals with Jordan and Vietnam.
In response, the Obama team agreed to review whether the gold standard should be applied to upcoming agreements, even while quietly acknowledging that neither Hanoi nor Amman were inclined to accept the clear type of assurance embraced by the United Arab Emirates.
In a series of closed-door meetings, the National Security Council debated what the policy on the standard should entail, but was unable to reach consensus on the matter, according to administration insiders.
During a key agency deputies meeting last fall, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg reportedly argued that nonproliferation concerns must weigh significantly into U.S. decisions about nuclear cooperation. Adherence to a high standard would help honor President Obama's 2009 pledge in Prague to pursue "an end to the dedicated production of weapons-grade materials" and serve as a model for the rest of the world, according to Steinberg's thinking.
However, Poneman insisted that Washington must not impose restrictions on what some nations regard as a right to peaceful nuclear power, insider sources said. The outcome of any such effort, he believes, could be that the U.S. nuclear energy industry will be put at a disadvantage, losing business to nations such as France or South Korea that impose fewer restrictions on foreign sales of nuclear technology and materials.
Katinka Podmaniczky, Poneman's spokeswoman at the Energy Department, declined any comment on the matter.
Gary Samore, the NSC coordinator for arms control and nonproliferation, in November confirmed that the issue was before Obama to decide (see GSN, Nov. 19, 2010).
Crowley told Global Security Newswire last week that the matter remains under study but that the Obama administration does not regard the UAE precedent as one that necessarily should be applied to other nations.