Saudi Nuclear Program at a Crossroads

September 11, 2018
Chen Kane

The following is an excerpt from the Middle East Institute.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear energy program is barely in its infancy but has already spurred much controversy. Amid a regional standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran and provocative comments from Saudi leaders, some observers worry that the program is little more than a pretext for developing nuclear weapons. Others, however, point to what they see as legitimate peaceful motivations for the program. They note that as a member in good standing of the U.N. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the kingdom is in its full rights to pursue a nuclear energy program, including uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, the two dual-use technologies that can be used to produce fuel useable in nuclear reactors and also produce the highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium needed for nuclear weapons.

As the U.S. and Saudi Arabia negotiate their nuclear energy cooperation agreement, U.S. policymakers have sought to strike a deal that would minimize the risks of Saudi Arabia pursuing a weapons path while positioning U.S. firms to compete against foreign competitors like Russia and China for lucrative contracts and geopolitical influence. As the international community assesses the Saudi program’s goals, they are likely to judge the kingdom’s intentions in reference to two other nuclear energy models in the Middle East—Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

Iran’s nuclear program is widely considered as a pretext for a nuclear weapons program. While Iran’s enrichment and reprocessing capabilities did not violate the NPT per se, the fact that it hid them for many years was judged to be a violation of Iran’s safeguard obligations by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the U.N. Security Council. Moreover, there is little plausible economic or technical rationale for Iran to possess such capabilities at this time or for the foreseeable future.

Continue reading at the Middle East Institute.

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