Saudi Plans to Develop Nuclear Power

by Peter Jenkins

Tom Lippman reported here last week that Westinghouse hopes to win an order for nuclear reactors from Saudi Arabia (KSA). He also referred to speculation that, to help Westinghouse, the United States would not insist on KSA foregoing uranium enrichment when it came to formulating the intergovernmental agreement on nuclear cooperation (123 agreement) that would have to underpin a US reactor sale.

If things turn out that way, those who have a taste for irony will be able to enjoy a quiet chuckle.

Back in the 1990s, the United States portrayed Iran’s wish to complete construction of a nuclear reactor at Bushehr, with Russian help, as an indicator of nuclear proliferation intent, arguing that a state as rich in oil and gas as Iran had no need of nuclear power.

Now, Lippman implies, the United States is happy to accept that KSA and other Gulf Arab states need nuclear power because burning their crude oil to meet a domestic demand for electricity reduces the amount available for export—the very argument Iran used in the 1990s to justify the resumption of a civil nuclear program abandoned after the fall of the Shah.

More significant, however, would be U.S. readiness to tolerate Saudi acquisition of a uranium enrichment capability. According to Lippman, there are extensive uranium reserves in KSA, and the Saudi government has made clear that it wants these to be processed domestically.

Since 1975 the United States has argued more fiercely than any other supplier of nuclear equipment for restricting the spread of uranium enrichment (and spent fuel reprocessing) technology, because this can be used for the production of nuclear weapon material. Initially the most the United States could obtain from other suppliers was agreement to “exercise restraint in the transfer of sensitive facilities, technology and weapons-usable materials.” But by 2011 they had persuaded the other members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to accept three pages of “Special Controls on Sensitive Exports.”

So tolerating Saudi acquisition of an enrichment capability—maybe even facilitating it—would be either a major inconsistency or a major policy shift.

In addition, it would have implications for Iran policy.

Under the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), Iran is applying the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol. This allows the IAEA to subject Iran’s nuclear program to a root-and-branch investigation. The aim of such investigations—completed or underway in many countries, not just Iran—is the acquisition of confidence in the entirely peaceful nature of nuclear programs. Typically, once an investigation has been completed—and if nothing untoward has come to light—the IAEA “assures” the international community that there is no undeclared nuclear activity or material in the state concerned.

If—as currently seems likely—the IAEA proves able, a few years from now, to provide such an assurance in relation to Iran’s program, the assurance will constitute a final line under the nuclear safeguards non-compliance that the IAEA reported in 2003. It will spell the disappearance of a legitimate and reasonable case for discriminating against Iran and denying that Iran has a sovereign right to make what use it pleases of nuclear technology as long as it is for peaceful purposes.

This suggests that—outside the United States and Israel, and any other states that are hostile to Iran—there is unlikely to be support for coercing Iran into accepting further restrictions on its uranium enrichment capability when the restrictions for which the JCPOA provides expire.

How much greater—to come to the point—will be global resistance to discriminating against Iran’s uranium enrichment activities if by 2026-31 (when JCPOA restrictions will be falling away) KSA is happily developing an unrestricted uranium enrichment capability with U.S. blessing?  The United States may be fond of applying double standards, especially in the Middle East, but most of the rest of the world believes that double standards do harm to a rules-based international order.

The ultimate pleasure for ironists may come from observing how Israel reacts to Saudi acquisition of a uranium enrichment capability.  For many years the Israeli government portrayed Iranian acquisition of enrichment technology as an “existential threat” to Israel. If Israel and KSA continue to be best buddies (despite Israel’s continuing illegal occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank), will Israel be content for KSA to acquire that technology? Or will the Israeli government recall Lord Palmerston’s immortal aphorism: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. It’s not clear Westinghouse will win the contract. The Saudis are also negotiating with the Russians.

  2. from NPR
    1957: The United States and its then-ally Iran sign a civil nuclear cooperation agreement as part of the U.S. Atoms for Peace program. The agreement allows the lease of several kilograms of enriched uranium to Iran and calls for cooperation on peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
    1959: The Shah of Iran orders the establishment of a nuclear research center at Tehran University.
    1968: Iran signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on July 1, the day it is opened for signature.
    1974: The U.S. and Iran reach a provisional agreement for the U.S. to supply two nuclear power plants and enriched uranium fuel to Iran. In the 1970s, Iran pursues other nuclear power deals with Germany, France and South Africa, among other allies.
    1975: The Shah says his country has “no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons but if small states began building them, then Iran might have to reconsider its policy.” Later in the ’70s, the U.S. obtains intelligence data indicating that the Shah has set up a clandestine nuclear weapons development program.
    1978: President Jimmy Carter and the Shah agree on a plan for Iran to purchase between up to eight light water nuclear reactors, pending approval by Congress.

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