Top nuclear experts urge Biden to not allow Saudi uranium enrichment in mega-deal
A bipartisan group of more than two dozen nuclear and Middle East experts sent a letter to President Biden on Thursday urging him not to allow Saudi Arabia to have a uranium enrichment program on its soil, according to the letter first shared with Axios.
Why it matters: The Saudi demand for a civilian nuclear program that includes uranium enrichment is the most complicated and sensitive part of the mega-deal the White House is negotiating with the kingdom and Israel.
- It is one of Saudi Arabia's main demands in the Biden administration's efforts to secure a peace deal between the kingdom and Israel.
- But it not only faces opposition from the experts who sent Thursday's letter but also from Israel's opposition, as well as many members of Congress who are critical of the Saudi government over its human rights record.
What they're saying: The 27 experts who signed the letter say they support normalization but think the kingdom doesn't need uranium enrichment to produce peaceful nuclear energy.
- "We urge you to reject the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's request for uranium enrichment as part of or separate from a normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel," they wrote.
- The experts stressed that uranium enrichment on Saudi soil could bring Saudi Arabia to the brink of acquiring nuclear arms — a reality U.S. policy should keep from happening.
Signatories to the letter include several former U.S. officials who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations and worked on nuclear or Middle East issues.
- They also include David Albright, one of the leading nuclear experts in the world, Olli Heinonen and Pierre Goldschmidt, both former deputy director generals of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's former national security adviser, Jacob Nagel.
- The letter was co-organized by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think tank that holds pro-Israeli views.
State of play: The Biden administration is still negotiating with the Saudi officials the conditions for a possible civilian nuclear program.
- Separate negotiations on the issue are being held between the Biden administration and the Israeli government.
- Unlike the signatories of the letter, Netanyahu doesn't object to Saudi Arabia having a civilian nuclear program and his government is negotiating with the U.S. the red lines and the guardrails for a program that would include uranium enrichment.
- A senior U.S. official told reporters on Wednesday that there is total alignment between the Israeli government and the Biden administration when it comes to the red lines.
- The White House did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment.
The big picture: In the letter, the experts also said that even if the enrichment facility in Saudi Arabia is operated by Americans, it will pose "an unacceptable proliferation risk, particularly given Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's public comments on nuclear weapons".
- MBS told Fox News in an interview that was aired on Wednesday that if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia would "have to get one, for security reasons, for balancing power."
- The experts also wrote that Saudi threats to go to China for nuclear technology are not a reason for the U.S. to change its policy on nuclear enrichment, a step that will be "a sign of weakness" and could encourage similar efforts by other countries.
- The experts added that allowing Saudi Arabia to have uranium enrichment capability like Iran could trigger a regional nuclear arms race.
- "Any nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia must meet the highest non-proliferation standards and enhanced inspection and transparency measures through a strong Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency," they wrote.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center was also a co-organizer of the letter.