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Expert Voices

Saudi nuclear deal presents diplomatic dilemma for U.S.

Rick Perry with Saudi Energy Minister Khaled al-Falih
Secretary Perry with Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih in Riyadh. Photo: Fayz Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images

When Saudi Arabia opened the bid for construction of its first nuclear power plant, the U.S.–based manufacturer Westinghouse was eager to beat out Russia’s Rosatom and China's National Nuclear Corporation for the deal. Last week Energy Secretary Rick Perry traveled to London to discuss the potential for a nuclear cooperation agreement with senior Saudi officials.

Why it matters: In order to secure the deal, the Trump administration may relax the U.S.’s “gold standard” nonproliferation guidelines — conditions that would prohibit Saudi Arabia from enriching uranium or reprocessing spent fuel. In that case, neither outcome of the bidding process would come without downsides.

The big picture:

  • Enriching and reprocessing capabilities make it easy to exploit peaceful nuclear activities to develop a clandestine weapons program. Waiving the nonproliferation standard would open a pathway for Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons as tensions with its regional rival, Iran, continue to escalate.
  • Yet if the U.S. insists on the gold standard as a condition for this deal, Saudi Arabia could turn to Russia or China, costing the U.S. an important economic and diplomatic foothold in the region.

The bottom line: Whichever course the administration pursues, the Saudi nuclear deal will carry a steep political cost, either compromising the United States' strong record on nonproliferation or allowing its leadership in the international nuclear industry to slip even further.

Jackie Kempfer is a nuclear security research associate with the Promoting Security and Prosperity Initiative at the Stimson Center.

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