Last week, two articles highlighted the complex geopolitical and global security challenges posed by Saudi Arabia’s decision to build nuclear power plants. One argued that a Saudi rejection of the Westinghouse bid to construct their first two plants would be a clear win for U.S. nonproliferation policy. The other underscored that decreasing U.S. engagement in the Middle East was limiting American influence in the region and driving nations into closer cooperation with Russia and China.
The loss of American influence over the nascent Saudi nuclear program would not guarantee a non-proliferation victory for the U.S. or the global community. It could put the U.S. at a geopolitical disadvantage in relation to Russia and China, both of which have very different standards and political calculations for international nuclear cooperation.
At the heart of the non-proliferation issue is the real value of the “Gold Standard,” a mandatory limit on uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing – the pathways to the bomb. The U.S. has included this standard in only two of twenty-three agreements with other nations (Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates). The remaining pacts contain stringent non-proliferation requirements that must be met to allow for the transfer of U.S. nuclear technology.
Is the gold standard or an alternative set of limits best applied to Saudi Arabia? The answer is not simple, and its implications are complex and high-stakes.
Secretary of State Pompeo has told Congress that the U.S. “wants[s] a gold-standard 123 agreement” with Saudi Arabia. But, Saudi officials have stated that they want to extract uranium and produce nuclear fuel as part of their nuclear self-sufficiency. More concerning, top Saudi officials have declared that they would seek a nuclear weapon if Iran develops that capability. This situation would create a global non-proliferation crisis and must be prevented. Partnering with the U.S. would put a brake on this proliferation potential, but first, there has to be a deal.
The Saudis have clearly indicated that they view the U.S. as an important nuclear partner and desire its expertise. But, they have expressed a willingness to choose a non-U.S. nuclear supplier if an agreement cannot be reached.
It is not clear that Saudi Arabia would be denied sensitive technologies under non-binding international limits. However, it's highly unlikely that the U.S., South Korea, or France - three of the five final bidders on the Saudi reactors - would supply uranium enrichment and reprocessing equipment to the kingdom. It is not clear that Russia or China would feel similarly restrained. Their civil nuclear industries are state-owned, and their decision-making is linked to national and geopolitical objectives that may not prioritize nonproliferation and nuclear security.
Nuclear geopolitics and non-proliferation do not reside in separate issue silos to be evaluated in isolation. Valuing one over the other will not ensure global security in our intensely interconnected and complex world. Achieving the right balance between them will.
Kenneth Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security