Middle East

Why does Saudi Arabia want to spend billions to enrich its own uranium?

Written by Steven Mufson

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has reaffirmed the kingdom’s desire to keep up with Iran’s nuclear program, casting doubt on Saudi claims that it seeks to mine and enrich uranium solely for civilian use and reawakening fears of a Middle East nuclear arms race.

In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Mohammed said that “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.”

The comments on the eve of Mohammed’s visit to the United States  are likely to complicate the Trump administration’s efforts to revise U.S. terms for a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, which is needed before U.S. firms can sell nuclear reactors, technology or materials to other nations. Saudi Arabia has said it intends to build two reactors near the Persian Gulf and is weighing five proposals, including one from a consortium led by Westinghouse and Fluor.

The cooperation accord is known as a 123 agreement under the Atomic Energy Act.

“With the comments made by Crown Prince Mohammed, it’s hard to imagine that the United States — or any other Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory — could engage in any nuclear trade or cooperation with Saudi Arabia, making the issue of the 123 agreement a moot point,” said Edwin Lyman, a nuclear nonproliferation and terrorism expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

 “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,” Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said in a statement. “The United States must not compromise on nonproliferation standards in any 123 agreement it concludes with Saudi Arabia.”
Opposition has also come from Israel, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the Capitol earlier this month and said he was against a cooperation agreement that would allow the Saudis to enrich uranium. Israel is widely believed to possess a nuclear arsenal, but it refuses to confirm or deny any claims.
In recent months, other senior Saudi officials have made comments similar to Mohammed’s, asserting that Saudi Arabia cannot accept nuclear cooperation terms that would be worse than those given Iran under the accord forged by President Barack Obama and backed by international powers — which curbed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting international sanctions.

About the author

Steven Mufson