Clock Ticking on Saudi Nuclear Deal

Will the Trump administration and Congress lose the chance to dictate Riyadh’s nuclear development?

President Trump meets with then-Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in the Oval Office in March 2017.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
May 13, 2018, 8 p.m.

A window for the Trump administration to close a nuclear-energy deal with Saudi Arabia is rapidly closing this Congress—and some experts and stakeholders say the U.S. could be botching an opportunity to ensure the Saudis keep nuclear power peaceful in the future.

Washington and Riyadh continue to negotiate the terms of a pact, known as a 123 agreement in reference to that section of the Atomic Energy Act. But tensions are ratcheting up in the Middle East following President Trump’s decision to scrap the Iran nuclear-weapons and sanctions-relief deal.

Now, speculation over Iranian nuclear ambitions is resurfacing. In turn, Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, recently said his government would aim for a nuclear bomb if Iran launches a weapons program.

A nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia must be submitted to Congress for approval. Should lawmakers choose not to act on an agreement, it would become law after 90 days of session—a window that is already collapsing in a truncated, election-year congressional calendar.

Key lawmakers are signaling concern that the administration will move forward with a deal that allows the Saudis to enrich their own uranium or plutonium, a critical step towards weapons development. A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is insisting on a “gold standard,” which would prohibit that enrichment.

“We need a gold standard, and I’m afraid this administration is already going down the road of, you know, doing something different than that,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker told National Journal. “Now that we’re out of [the Iran deal], we should absolutely demand that any country in the region that we do business with has a gold standard.”

Nuclear-energy agreements, which allow U.S. companies to export reactors, nuclear fuels, and components of reactors, typically don’t reach the level of sensitivity at play in the Saudi negotiations. The U.S. currently has at least 23 agreements in place with a total of 48 countries, and U.S. negotiators have recently locked in place gold-standard agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration submitted additional agreements to Congress in the past few days—a side agreement with the United Kingdom and a new pact with Mexico. The latter deal prohibits enrichment. That language is exempt from the U.K. agreement, but that country already has nuclear weapons. The U.S. is also poised to soon renew a pact with Japan.

The process is more complicated, however, with the Saudis. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has led those negotiations so far, despite the State Department’s role as traditional lead. Perry met with Saudi delegates in London in early March. The kingdom’s energy minister, Khalid al-Falih, told Reuters weeks later that his country will shop elsewhere if the U.S. doesn’t permit some enrichment.

Since then, lawmakers say they’re hearing crickets, and the Iran withdrawal indicates an agreement is now further out of reach, according to some.

“The Saudis have indicated, ‘Well, if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, we want a nuclear weapon,’” Rep. Gerald Connolly, a Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told National Journal. “They’re going to now watch what Iran does and their reaction. So, I think it puts [123-agreement negotiations] on ice.”

Despite bipartisan support for a gold standard, legislation to ensure that framework is in place for all nuclear-energy deals has languished on Capitol Hill for years. The Nuclear Cooperation Reform Act of 2018, cosponsored by top Foreign Affairs Committee members, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman, hasn’t received a hearing and boasts only three additional sponsors.

The U.S. nuclear industry, a key beneficiary of the pacts, is firmly against a blanket gold-standard requirement.

“The U.S. years ago was the dominant supplier. Now there’s lots of international competition,” said Carol Berrigan, a senior director at the Nuclear Energy Institute. “So if you’re creating a scenario where you’ve got a one-size-fits-all solution and countries say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ you’re effectively not influencing their program and you’re also cutting the U.S. out of market.”

NEI lobbied against the legislation in the first quarter of this year, as did Exelon, a leading U.S. energy supplier. Meanwhile, Toshiba-owned Westinghouse is aiming to secure contracts with Riyadh should the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia reach a deal, according to recent reports. Both Westinghouse and Exelon are NEI members. The Saudis currently don’t produce nuclear power, but they are trying to diversify their energy portfolio to nuclear and solar.

In the foreign-policy and arms-control community, meanwhile, a debate rages on, and some observers are backing the industry position.

“If [lawmakers] insist on a gold standard, then we won’t have an agreement with [the Saudis],” said Fred McGoldrick, a former director at the State Department’s Office of Nonproliferation and Export Policy who negotiated several 123 agreements. “Bear in mind, the Saudis have options. They don’t need us. They can go elsewhere.”

Experts in the field say the Saudis could broker nuclear agreements with China, Russia, France, or South Korea. McGoldrick and more than 20 other security stalwarts inked a letter in late April to key lawmakers, encouraging them to ease up on stringent gold-standard demands.

“Saudi Arabia may be willing to accept a legal commitment not to proceed with either enrichment or reprocessing for a long-term period and refrain from trying to acquire such capabilities without the approval of the United States, but it will not accept a legally binding blanket obligation to forswear these technologies forever,” the letter said.

But other arms-control experts echo the lawmakers’ positions.

“Our view is that Saudi Arabia’s increasingly unabashed nuclear hedging is a threat to the nonproliferation regime that the United States has led for decades,” said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament at the Arms Control Association.

“We shouldn’t understate the significant leverage that the United States and the Trump administration have in the Saudi case,” he added. “Yes, the U.S. nuclear industry no longer holds the top position on the supply chain, if you will, that it once did, but countries still value the imprimatur of legitimacy for their civilian nuclear efforts that comes with a 123 agreement.”

Reif also stressed the massive U.S. economic and military aid for Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is the largest recipient of U.S. military sales, and more than $114 billion contracts are currently in place, according to the State Department.

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