Will Washington offer Riyadh a ‘flexible’ nuclear deal?

Companies from Russia, China and South Korea, as well as the US firm Westinghouse, submitted proposals to Saudi Arabia in late 2017.
Sunday 22/04/2018
US Secretary of State-designate Mike  Pompeo (L) talks with Chairman Bob Corker after a break in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on April 12 (AP)
Answering questions. US Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo (L) talks with Chairman Bob Corker after a break in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on April 12 (AP)

Arevealing exchange occurred during the confirmation hearing of Mike Pompeo, who is US President Donald Trump’s nominee to be secretary of state: US Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts who has long been a critic of nuclear energy and of nuclear proliferation, asked Pompeo whether he supported reaching a “123 Agreement,” also known as the Gold Standard, for Riyadh.

A 123 Agreement means a country can develop nuclear power stations but with the proviso that there would be strict limits on uranium enrichment and a prohibition on the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to preclude the development of a nuclear weapon. The United Arab Emirates accepted such an arrangement from the United States in 2009.

Pompeo said he favoured the Gold Standard for Saudi Arabia but when Markey pressed him further by asking whether he would oppose anything less strict than the Gold Standard, Pompeo equivocated, stating first that he “can’t answer” that question and then saying that he could “imagine that scenario.”

This response led Markey to ask what the Iranian response would be if Saudi Arabia were granted something less strict than the Gold Standard. Pompeo underscored that the Iran nuclear deal was not the Gold Standard because Iran was still able to enrich uranium (albeit at a much lower level than before), implying that the Iran case has made the Saudis nervous.

Markey’s questioning suggested that his concern was a scenario in which anything less strict than the Gold Standard for Saudi Arabia could fuel a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, making the region even more dangerous and unstable.

Markey had signalled before the hearing that he would lead a congressional effort to block anything short of the Gold Standard with Saudi Arabia, declaring that the United States “must not compromise in any 123 Agreement it concludes with Saudi Arabia.”

Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during the Pompeo hearing that it would be “very difficult to tell the Arab nations that they cannot enrich (uranium) when the Shias can.” Although Corker may not have intended to make a sectarian point, he was clearly referring to Iran.

What Corker did not say was that there was also an American business interest in the issue. As many observers noted, Trump sees his relationship with the Saudis as a kind of business venture. The closer he gets to the Saudis, the more he believes they will “buy American.”

Saudi Arabia wants to build four nuclear power stations and says it hopes to conclude a deal with a foreign company by the end of 2018. Companies from Russia, China and South Korea, as well as the US firm Westinghouse, submitted proposals to Saudi Arabia in late 2017.

Westinghouse has had financial troubles in recent years but, if it were to win this contract, its financial position could possibly be turned around. Trump could then boast that he not only helped bring an American company back into solvency but also helped to bring good-paying manufacturing jobs to the United States.

However, if the Saudis were to select Westinghouse, they may demand that Washington allow terms that are less strict than a 123 Agreement. Nuclear experts in the United States are split on the issue, with some arguing that Washington should show some “flexibility” because the United States would have leverage over the Saudis if an American firm were involved, whereas the Russians or Chinese would not care about imposing constraints on the Saudi nuclear programme.

As per US law, however, Congress has the ultimate say in the matter and many members are worried about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, especially after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz stated in an interview that if Iran develops a nuclear bomb “we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

Aside from indulging the Saudis, who may want to be in a position someday to “go nuclear” with a bomb if they believe Iran is headed in that direction, there is congressional concern that striking a “flexible” deal with Riyadh would cause problems for the United States with already-signed agreements with other countries.

Markey told the Wall Street Journal that it was “crazy to loosen important non-proliferation standards just to secure an uncertain commercial deal.” Whether he can muster a majority in Congress to block what the Trump administration may have in mind is an open question.

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