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How might a US-Saudi civil nuclear deal work?

3 min

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will visit Saudi Arabia this weekend for talks expected to touch on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, one piece of a wider arrangement Washington hopes will lead to normalization of Israeli-Saudi relations.

A civil nuclear pact © Mena Today 

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will visit Saudi Arabia this weekend for talks expected to touch on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, one piece of a wider arrangement Washington hopes will lead to normalization of Israeli-Saudi relations.

Below is a description of the key issues involved in a U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear deal, what risks and benefits it may offer the United States and Saudi Arabia, and how it fits within U.S. efforts to broker Israeli-Saudi reconciliation.

WHAT IS A CIVIL NUCLEAR COOPERATION AGREEMENT?

Under Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the United States may negotiate agreements to engage in significant civil nuclear cooperation with other nations.

It specifies nine nonproliferation criteria those states must meet to keep them from using the technology to develop nuclear arms or transfer sensitive materials to others.

The law stipulates congressional review of such pacts.

WHY DOES SAUDI ARABIA WANT A US NUCLEAR COOPERATION AGREEMENT?

As the world's largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia at first glance is not an obvious candidate for a nuclear pact typically aimed at building power plants to generate electricity.

There are two reasons Riyadh may wish to do so.

The first is that under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious Vision 2030 reform plan, the kingdom aims to generate substantial renewable energy and reduce emissions. At least some of this is expected to come from nuclear energy.

Critics cite a second potential reason: that Riyadh might wish to develop nuclear expertise in case it someday wished to acquire nuclear weapons despite the safeguards enshrined in any deal with Washington to prevent this.

The Saudi crown prince has long said that if Iran developed a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia would follow suit, a stance that has fueled deep concern among arms control advocates and some U.S. lawmakers over a possible U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear deal.

The Sunni Muslim kingdom and Shi'ite revolutionary Iran have been at odds for decades.

HOW WOULD THE UNITED STATES BENEFIT FROM A CIVIL NUCLEAR DEAL WITH SAUDI ARABIA?

There could be strategic and commercial gains.

The Biden administration has made no secret of its hope to broker a long-shot, multi-part arrangement leading Saudi Arabia and Israel to normalize relations. It believes Saudi support for normalization may hinge partly on striking a civil nuclear deal.

The strategic benefits would be to shore up Israel's security, build a wider coalition against Iran and reinforce U.S. ties to one of the wealthiest Arab nations at a time when China is seeking to extend its influence in the Gulf.

The commercial benefit would be to put U.S. industry in a prime spot to win contracts to build Saudi nuclear power plants, as U.S. atomic companies compete with Russia, China and other countries for global business.

WHAT ARE THE HURDLES TO A US-SAUDI CIVIL NUCLEAR DEAL?

To start, it is all but inconceivable while the Gaza war rages.

Israel invaded the Gaza Strip after Hamas-led gunmen on Oct. 7 attacked southern Israeli communities, killing about 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages, according to Israeli figures.

It is hard to imagine the Saudis being willing to normalize relations while Palestinians are dying in such numbers.

WHAT IS THE WIDER PACT IN WHICH A NUCLEAR DEAL MIGHT FIGURE?

The United States hopes to find a way to give Saudi Arabia several things it wants - a civil nuclear pact, security guarantees and a pathway toward a Palestinian state - in return for Riyadh agreeing to normalize relations with Israel.

Earlier this month, seven people familiar with the matter told Reuters the Biden administration and Saudi Arabia were finalizing an agreement  for U.S. security guarantees and civilian nuclear assistance to Riyadh.

However, the wider Israel-Saudi normalization envisaged as part of a Middle East "grand bargain" remains elusive.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE KEY ISSUES TO BE WORKED OUT IN A SAUDI-US NUCLEAR DEAL  

A key issue is whether Washington might agree to build a uranium enrichment facility on Saudi territory, when it might do so, and whether Saudi personnel might have access to it or it would be run solely by U.S. staff in a "black box" arrangement.

Without safeguards built into an agreement, Saudi Arabia, which has uranium ore, could theoretically use an enrichment facility to produce highly enriched uranium, which, if purified enough, can yield fissile material for bombs.

Another issue is whether Riyadh would agree to make a Saudi investment in a U.S.-based and U.S.-owned uranium enrichment plant and to hire U.S. companies to build Saudi nuclear reactors.

By Arshad Mohammed

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