Saudi nuclear efforts on rise amid Trump's push for deal

Published 21.02.2019 00:05
U.S. President Donald Trump shows a chart about arms sales to Saudi Arabia, during a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House, Washington, D.C., March 20, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump shows a chart about arms sales to Saudi Arabia, during a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House, Washington, D.C., March 20, 2018.

Saudi Arabia's plan to proceed with its nuclear power push raises concerns over whether talks between the White House, Riyadh would prohibit the kingdom from developing nuclear weapons

Amid Saudi Arabia's nuclear power aspirations to be self-sufficient in producing nuclear fuel with U.S. President Donald Trump's backing, ambiguity over the kingdom's true ambition of becoming a nuclear power in the region still remain. Saudi Arabia says it wants nuclear power in order to be able to divert more oil for export, saying that it is not interested in nuclear technology for military use. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), announced his country's readiness to develop nuclear projects and led negotiations with the U.S. Energy and State Departments last year over a power plant deal "worth an upward of $80 billion."

In Aug. 2009, the Saudi government announced that it was considering a nuclear power program on its own. Since then, the kingdom has sought further negotiations with Russia, China, South Korea and France. The kingdom has seen a full nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. as vital to proceeding with Saudi nuclear power plans. However, defying White House efforts to support a project to share nuclear power technology with Saudi Arabia, the House of Representatives committee in charge of investigations, led by the rival Democratic Party, has prompted a deepening probe over U.S.-Saudi nuclear talks.

While aiming to beat out competitors from Russia and China to develop multibillion-dollar nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia, Trump met with nuclear power developers on Feb. 12 to discuss sharing nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia and other countries at a White House meeting organized by IP3 International, a company that has advocated American nuclear power development in the Middle East.

A day later, U.S. senators from both parties introduced a resolution requiring that any deal to share U.S. nuclear power technology with Saudi Arabia block the kingdom from making a nuclear weapon. Under the measure, any U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, the so-called 123 agreement, with Saudi Arabia would prevent enrichment of uranium or reprocessing of plutonium made in reactors. In previous talks, Saudi Arabia had refused to sign an agreement with Washington that would deprive it of enriching uranium. In March and August 2017, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and the Saudi Geological Survey signed agreements on cooperation on the exploration of uranium over the next two years, according to the World Nuclear Association.

In a more conflictual statement, MBS earlier said the kingdom would quickly move to develop nuclear weapons if Tehran succeeded in obtaining them. "Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible," he told U.S. broadcaster CBS in an interview last year. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the U.S. sale of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia was hypocritical of Washington. "Day by day it becomes clearer to the world what was always clear to us: Neither human rights nor a nuclear program has been the real concern of the U.S. First a dismembered journalist; now the illicit sale of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia fully expose #USHypocrisy," tweeted Zarif yesterday.

As Riyadh proceeds with its nuclear power push, it is more likely that it would become the second Gulf Arab state to launch a nuclear power project after the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an increasing source of tension in the Middle East following Trump's decision to pull out of the Iranian nuclear pact.

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