"We approach these negotiations on a country-by-country basis," the State Department spokesman said in an e-mailed response to questions. "We are still reviewing the best course of action going forward. We do not have a set schedule. Country by country, these agreements are based on mutual interests and are not affected by arrangements with other countries."
Pending a presidential decision, it has been left to the Energy and State departments to sort out how they would approach anticipated talks with Saudi Arabia aimed at landing a formal agreement on terms for their future nuclear trade, Washington sources said.
Indications are that Poneman recently advised the State Department -- the lead U.S. agency for international negotiations -- that Washington need not press Saudi Arabia to accept nonproliferation provisions similar to those in the UAE accord, according to government sources.
Indeed there were signs last August that Riyadh -- a powerful neighbor to Iran that is clearly rattled by Tehran's presumed interest in nuclear weapons -- was not prepared to accept a ban on its enrichment or reprocessing, according to Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Hibbs noted, though, that the U.S.-UAE Business Council in 2009 touted initial Saudi interest in adhering to the gold standard, a suggestion that prompts nonproliferation advocates to believe Riyadh might be receptive to forgoing these activities, perhaps even if only for a limited time.
A trade agreement between Washington and Riyadh would offer Saudi Arabia access to advanced U.S. nuclear energy technologies, materials and know-how "for use in medicine, industry and power generation and [to] help in the development of both human and infrastructure resources," the State Department said in announcing an initial memorandum of understanding in May 2008.
Washington's "seal of approval" could also help boost the Persian Gulf nation's ability to entice other countries to invest in its nascent atomic energy sector, experts say. From Washington's perspective, such an agreement could help a flagging U.S. nuclear industry compete for business in supplying Saudi reactors.
Nonproliferation experts are warning, though, that if a U.S.-Saudi agreement fails to include provisions that discourage enrichment or reprocessing, the earlier UAE pledge could be withdrawn.
Washington's accord with the Emirates features an escape clause that allows Abu Dhabi to exercise any more favorable terms that the United States grants other Middle Eastern nations in subsequent nuclear trade pacts.
Along with individual states such as Jordan, the Gulf Cooperation Council -- consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- has voiced interest in developing its nuclear energy sector under international guidelines.
The uptick in Middle Eastern civil nuclear energy projects comes amid growing international scrutiny of Iran's nuclear program. Tehran is widely suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapons capability but has insisted its intentions are peaceful.
Egypt, for one, is increasingly troubled by the prospect that Iran might succeed in building a nuclear bomb, despite international sanctions and diplomatic efforts aimed at preventing such an eventuality. Even as Cairo last year pushed the international community to establish a special Mideast zone free of weapons of mass destruction, its U.N. envoy would not rule out the idea that Egypt itself could be forced by regional circumstances to develop atomic weapons (see GSN, June 10, 2010).
"Is this the region where you really want to be playing games?" said Sharon Squassoni of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to the languishing debate inside the Obama administration. "Because of Iran, the stakes are higher."
Poneman and other nuclear energy proponents argue that Washington would have more leverage with a nation such as Saudi Arabia only after striking a trade deal. However, this point has nonproliferation advocates asking what harm there would be in having the State Department at least make the case for nonproliferation provisions during bilateral negotiations.
"You don't know till you go ask," said one congressional staffer.
The emerging situation is worrying lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Both House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and the panel's ranking member, Representative Howard Berman (D-Calif.), are readying legislation to amend the Atomic Energy Act so that future nuclear trade pacts are more likely to include strong nonproliferation provisions.