Swirling reports of a U.S.-Saudi Arabia deal that would trade normalization with Israel for U.S. security guarantees are raising questions about what Washington will put on the table.
A U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear agreement—also known as a “123 agreement” after the Atomic Energy Act’s section that governs such cooperation — could be part of the broader arrangement, per reports that Saudi Arabia is demanding such cooperation as part of this “grand bargain.”
Any other country that possessed Saudi Arabia’s mix of gross human rights abuses, authoritarian government, malign activities abroad and stated intentions to build a nuclear weapon if Iran gets the bomb would be rightly isolated by the U.S., and not be a serious contender for a 123 agreement.
The U.S. ought to be drawing down its Middle East presence to focus limited resources on more pressing interests in other regions of the world. Nonetheless, if President Joe Biden proceeds, Congress should take steps to make the agreement as stringent and difficult as possible for Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia approved a National Project for Atomic Energy in 2017 and has been shopping around for foreign assistance. A major goal of the Saudi program is to have the complete nuclear fuel cycle. Per Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, this would include “the production of yellowcake, low enriched uranium, and the manufacturing of nuclear fuel both for our national use and, of course, for export.”
The Saudi government claims that it only wants to produce low-enriched uranium, which is suitable for nuclear energy but not weapons. However, a complete nuclear fuel cycle would make it much easier to either covertly manufacture fissile material for a nuclear weapon over time or quickly “sprint” to a weapon on short notice. Past statements by Saudi Arabia’s political leadership that Riyad will develop a nuclear weapon if Iran does should raise alarm bells about the proliferation risks of a Saudi civil nuclear program.
These risks mean that Congress should do everything in its power to introduce so-called poison pills provisions that would make the process of finalizing an agreement as difficult as possible. The legislative body can prevent a 123 agreement from taking effect though a joint resolution of disapproval, but such a resolution can be easily overturned by presidential veto. Regardless, Congress still has tools at its disposal.
The U.S.-India and U.S.-United Arab Emirates 123 agreements provide examples of ways to make a potential U.S.-Saudi nuclear deal more stringent.
Because India is a nuclear-armed state, Congress had to pass legislation that granted waivers so the president could negotiate a 123 agreement. This legislation, the Hyde Act of 2006, established unique demands and requirements. Most importantly, it required a joint resolution of approval on the final 123 agreement instead of a joint resolution of disapproval to block the deal.
Although Saudi Arabia does not possess nuclear weapons, Congress could still pursue separate legislation that amends the Atomic Energy Act and lays out conditions and requirements unique to a nuclear deal.
The U.S.-UAE 123 agreement contains two unique provisions that should be emulated in a U.S.-Saudi deal. First, the agreement required the UAE to implement more intrusive safeguards before granting any export licenses for sensitive U.S. technology. Second, the U.S.-UAE agreement established what came to be known as the “Gold Standard”; the UAE pledged to forgo all enrichment and reprocessing activities and facilities. Washington should apply the “Gold Standard” to Saudi Arabia.
Additionally, Congress should make its support for a 123 agreement contingent on other actions. For example, in 2009, the Obama administration demanded end-use monitoring of all weapons systems sold to India. The Hyde Act also created a nuclear export accountability program. While no public agreement was ever released, later reports suggested that India agreed to “allow the United States to periodically carry out an inspection and inventory of all articles transferred to India.”
The U.S. should similarly link any Saudi nuclear deal to end-use monitoring of all weapons transferred to Riyad. Since Saudi Arabia started its war in Yemen, the country has used U.S. weapons to commit vast human rights abuses and endanger U.S. troops. Making a 123 agreement contingent on U.S. end-use monitoring of all weapons sent to Saudi Arabia would improve American security.
Put simply, helping one of Washington’s most problematic allies build a civil nuclear program is non-sensical. The Biden administration should not go ahead with such an agreement in the first place, but if it does Congress should implement poison pills to make the deal as unpalatable as possible for Saudi Arabia.
Eric Gomez is a senior fellow and Jon Hoffman and Jordan Cohen are policy analysts at the Cato Institute and hold Ph.Ds in political science from George Mason University.