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Crown Prince Upends Nuclear Talks With US

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's threat that if Iran develops a nuclear bomb "we will follow suit as soon as possible" could upend plans by Riyadh and Washington to conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement (NCA), and would make Congressional approval of such a deal more difficult. Until CBS released a partial transcript of an interview the prince gave to the network's television news program 60 Minutes on Mar. 15, all signs pointed to the imminent conclusion of a US-Saudi NCA, known as a 123 Agreement, possibly in time for Prince Mohammed's visit to the US beginning Mar. 19 (NIW Mar.2'18). The Trump administration is enamored with the prospect of US vendors winning the major supply contracts for Saudi Arabia's planned first two power reactors, and bilateral talks over an NCA, without which such contracts could not be fulfilled, have picked up steam since the start of the year. Filings with the US Justice Department last month reveal that the Saudis have hired at least three DC law firms to advise them on their nuclear power program, its compatibility with US law, the 123 talks, and in the case of one firm to lobby members of both the US government and Congress to support the NCA. And the Saudi cabinet on Mar. 13 approved a national nuclear energy policy that appeared to set in stone the nascent program's peaceful intentions. According to this codified policy "all nuclear activities will be restricted to peaceful purposes, within the framework defined by international legislation, treaties and conventions," the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information announced on Mar. 14. This was similar to what Vietnam did to conclude a new 123 Agreement with the US in October 2013 (NIW Oct.11'13). Just as now, there had been tremendous pressure for that agreement to include the "gold standard" that the United Arab Emirates agreed to in its 123 Agreement, in order to ensure congressional approval of the deal. The standard explicitly ruled out domestic uranium enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) by the UAE, which so far is the only country to have agreed to such a measure in an NCA (NIW Nov.1'13). To get around its refusal to include such a provision in the text of its NCA, Hanoi instead made a separate commitment to forgo ENR, and the Obama administration could point to Vietnam's 2008 law forbidding the development of nuclear weapons in order to ensure Congressional support. Confusing the Message Saudi Arabia looked like it was following the same playbook, and the Trump administration seemed ready to back away from the Obama administration's attempts to persuade the kingdom to adopt the gold standard in its 123 Agreement (NIW Sep.18'15). Then Prince Mohammed, the driving force behind Saudi Arabia's newly assertive foreign policy and the heir to the throne, sat down for an interview. "Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb," Prince Mohammed told CBS reporter Norah O'Donnell in an interview set to air on Mar. 18, "but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible." This provoked immediate backlash. Prince Mohammed's comments are "a sign of contempt" for the 123 process, one former US government official told Nuclear Intelligence Weekly. And early signs are that some members of Congress are equally livid. "Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has confirmed what many have long suspected -- nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia is about more than just electrical power, it’s about geopolitical power," Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a Mar. 15 statement. "The United States must not compromise on nonproliferation standards in any 123 agreement it concludes with Saudi Arabia. It is also more crucial than ever that the United States supports the Iran deal, which is one of our most important tools in containing a nuclear arms race that could otherwise explode in the Middle East." The House Foreign Affairs Committee's subcommittee on the Middle East and Africa has slated a Mar. 20 hearing on the Saudi NCA, with outspoken opponents or strong skeptics of the agreement scheduled to testify. Iran is clearly a factor behind Saudi Arabia's reluctance to foreswear domestic ENR capabilities. And it's certainly a motivating force for Prince Mohammed, who is pushing Saudi Arabia to militarily counter Iranian-backed forces across the Middle East, and who told O'Donnell that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is "very much like Hitler." Moreover the timing of this contretemps comes only days after US President Donald Trump announced the replacement of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, one of the administration's last remaining defenders of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (related). Beyond the 123 Even if the crown prince's comments do manage to scuttle a 123 Agreement for the time being, few expect that this would have a major impact on the Saudi nuclear program. The state-owned King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (Ka-Care) has a list of five vendor candidates who responded to its request for information last year, and is set to narrow the list in the coming months (NIW Dec.15'17). The Saudis also announced this week two "fundamental laws" drafted, peer-reviewed and finally proposed to higher authorities by Ka-Care, for establishing an independent nuclear regulatory body and a nuclear liability law. According to the information ministry, regulatory oversight will be transferred from Ka-Care to a new Nuclear and Radiation Authority as part of a commitment "to establish and maintain an updated appropriate governmental, legal and regulatory framework for nuclear and radiation safety within which responsibilities are clearly allocated." The information ministry said the cabinet had referred two draft regulations to the advisory Shura Council: the Civil Liability System for Nuclear Damage and the Nuclear and Radiation Control System. It's not yet clear what exactly these laws might do and when they might ultimately be approved by the cabinet. Phil Chaffee, London pchaffee@energyintel.com

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