Saudi Arabia’s Enrichment Ambitions
By: Bobby Kim
As the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (P5+1) inch toward a nuclear deal with Iran, senior Saudi officials have warned that “whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same.” One key element in any agreement will be how to constrain Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities, which can be used to create nuclear fuel or fissile material for nuclear weapons. Observers, citing Riyadh’s reluctance to formally forego uranium enrichment in its nuclear cooperation agreements and its quiet development of scientific expertise, have speculated that a final P5+1 deal that preserves Iran’s enrichment capability would spur Saudi efforts to acquire its own domestic enrichment program.
Although developing its own uranium enrichment technology is a theoretical possibility, most experts believe Saudi Arabia will try to buy enrichment equipment or an entire plant from an existing supplier. Supplier states within the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) agreed on specific criteria for enrichment and reprocessing transfers in 2011, but Saudi Arabia doesn’t meet many of those criteria.
There is another way, however. While there have long been rumors of clandestine Saudi-Pakistan nuclear cooperation, such cooperation on Saudi enrichment could be overt. Pakistan is not a member of the NSG and is unhappy that India is now being considered for NSG membership. Pakistan could legally sell Saudi Arabia enrichment technology; the only violation would be if Saudi Arabia did not make the proper declarations or submit the plant to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Saudi Arabia could acquire sensitive enrichment technology (as long as it does not violate its safeguards agreement) and even accumulate stocks of highly enriched uranium, creating a latent nuclear weapons capability.
If Saudi Arabia pursued this path, other states might also be tempted to pursue sensitive fuel cycle technologies. These gaps in the nonproliferation regime raise questions about the efficacy of politically expedient “ad hoc” arrangements, and whether such arrangements should be supplemented with a more sustainable and principled approach toward the nuclear fuel cycle.