Last month, the Saudi energy minister announced that his country intends to develop the capability to produce nuclear fuel from scratch—in other words, to acquire the technology to build nuclear bombs as well as nuclear reactors. Andrea Stricker notes that such a plan would defy economic sense if Riyadh had purely civilian ends in mind, and warns of the destabilizing effects of the kingdom obtaining atomic weapons, or even the capacity to build them. She outlines how the U.S. could prevent such an eventuality. (Free registration required.)
To begin, the Biden administration should renew the push for a bilateral U.S.-Saudi agreement on nuclear cooperation accord in which Riyadh forgoes uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing—provisions that constitute the “gold standard” of nonproliferation. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) committed to the gold standard in 2009. If Saudi Arabia agrees, the White House should bring both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi into an exclusive club of U.S. partners, those granted major non-NATO ally (MNNA) status.
In addition, the United States should make clear to Riyadh that we will not sit by idly as Iran advances to the nuclear threshold. It should announce a new, comprehensive strategy against Iran that uses all instruments of American power to . . . deter and severely to weaken the regime, while rolling back Iran’s aggression. This strategy should seek to limit Iran’s nuclear program, rather than encourage Saudi Arabia or other countries in the region to seek equivalence.
If the Saudis refuse a cooperative approach, the Biden administration should make clear that the bilateral relationship will be negatively impacted by Saudi enrichment.
Saudi enrichment would not only further destabilize the Middle East, it would propel other nations, such as the UAE, Turkey, and Egypt, to start their own nuclear fuel-production programs and ensure the current Iranian regime never abandons enrichment. Admittedly, the Biden administration must overcome its frequent antagonism toward Riyadh to deepen its security relationship with the Saudis. But given current geopolitical and energy security realities, a stronger relationship would benefit both sides.