Paul R. Pillar
Nuclear Proliferation Saudi Arabia Iran UAE, Middle East
Later this week Secretary of Energy Rick Perry will lead a U.S. delegation to negotiate a possible nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia. The subject already has been a point of contention between Riyadh and Washington. Saudi Arabia wants to establish a large-scale nuclear power program and also wants to be free to engage in nuclear activities such as enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of spent reactor fuel. The United States has instead seen as a model an agreement it reached several years ago with the United Arab Emirates. In that accord, the UAE agreed to forgo enrichment and reprocessing in return for getting from the United States nuclear material, equipment, and know-how.
Each side has understandable reasons for its position. What is needed is an appropriate external standard as a reference point for the negotiations. The UAE agreement is one reference point, but not the only one. Another is in place just across the Persian Gulf: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement that restricts Iran’s nuclear program and has been successfully in operation for a couple of years. Rather than being an impediment to negotiations with the Saudis, as some have contended, its usefulness as a reference point can aid the negotiations. The laboriously negotiated JCPOA is one of the most significant agreements on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation, and it contains some of the most stringent restrictions that any state with an ongoing nuclear program has ever accepted. The Saudis would have no logical complaint if they were to become party to an agreement exactly like the one their cross-gulf rival signed up to.
“Exactly” means exactly that, and the Saudis would have to think hard about going in that direction. A JCPOA-like agreement would mean no indigenous reprocessing, with all spent reactor fuel to be shipped out of the country. It would mean severe restrictions on any uranium enrichment, in terms of both the level of enrichment and the amount of material enriched. It would mean a highly intrusive inspection regime, in which international inspectors would not only have continual and full access to nuclear facilities but also could inspect military bases or other places if they had any reason to suspect nuclear-related activities taking place there.