"It's almost like they're daring Congress to stand up and do something," one Capitol Hill staffer said of the Obama administration and its delay in announcing a policy approach on the gold standard. "The scales are going to start to tip. People will start saying, 'It's too much. I'm sick of this.'"
Another aide noted that it was the Obama team that strengthened the UAE pact by adding Abu Dhabi's explicit pledge on enrichment and processing, augmenting the right-of-return disincentives that the Bush administration had earlier secured. The current administration even gave the provisions the "gold standard" moniker.
"So they're in a little bit of a spot here," the aide said. "This is something they helped to create."
The issue appears to be left at stalemate within the administration, several insiders indicated.
"The most powerful option for a bureaucrat is to 'do nothing,'" noted one Capitol Hill Republican.
If the Obama Cabinet opts out of championing the gold standard in the run-up to the 2012 election, it might expose the president to accusations that he is abandoning one of his core convictions, some experts are saying.
"It's hard to believe that the administration after the midterm elections would start a negotiation with Saudi Arabia on that basis -- especially since the UAE agreement was conceived of as a template for other states in the Middle East," Hibbs told GSN yesterday by e-mail.
"This administration is setting itself up to fail for the president," the GOP staffer opined.
In an interview last week from his office in Bonn, Germany, Hibbs said it could be a long while before Saudi Arabia gears up its nuclear energy sector. There is much work to do in expanding the nation's power grid and educating Saudi engineers on how these systems work, he said.
Over the next few years, the United States is also expected to initiate and renew a dozen or more nuclear trade agreements with various nations around the globe. Nonproliferation advocates see this as a potential opportunity for Washington to solidify a standard that could pay dividends down the road.
"You've got the UAE," said one Capitol Hill aide. "If you can get Jordan and another country beyond that -- three countries that voluntarily foreswear reprocessing -- then you've got a real precedent forming."
After such a precedent is established, the burden would then be on other states to explain why they would demand to preserve a right to enrich or reprocess, the staffer said.
"This gold standard might be quite difficult to implement, but the U.S. should not stop trying to restrict the spread of these technologies," said Squassoni, who directs her organization's Proliferation Prevention Program. "Otherwise we may find ourselves in a race to the bottom against competitors like the French and Koreans, who are more likely to win contracts."
If U.S. companies are already losing global nuclear energy contracts to foreign competition anyway, Washington might as well take the high road in maintaining a high nonproliferation standard, one congressional aide said.
"If we want this to be a standard, we have to do the legwork with our allies," Squassoni said. It will take concerted diplomacy and arm-twisting to ensure that other nuclear energy purveyors adhere to the same restrictions on their sales, she said.