US-Saudi Nuclear Talks Complicated by Iran Deal

US-Saudi Nuclear Talks Complicated by Iran DealUS-Saudi Nuclear Talks Complicated by Iran Deal

The US administration's talks with Saudi Arabia on a potentially lucrative atomic energy agreement have been complicated by the commitments Washington made under the Iran nuclear deal.

US Energy Secretary Rick Perry will lead an interagency US delegation to talks with the Saudis in London on Friday, two administration officials and three outside advisors said, AP reported on Monday.

The meeting comes as the Arab powerhouse explores a civilian nuclear energy program, possibly without restrictions on uranium enrichment and reprocessing that would be required under a US cooperation deal.

But there is a catch: The Saudis have indicated they might accept such curbs if a separate nuclear deal with its arch-foe Iran is tightened, according to the unnamed officials.

The separate negotiations, over Saudi and Iranian nuclear capabilities, put American officials in the middle of the great balance-of-power of the modern Middle East.

The Saudis are loath to sign away their ability to move closer to bomb-making capability while Iran is bound by the 2015 nuclear accord that will become increasingly lenient next decade.

Saudis, who are among the US closest allies, are now asking a question: If Iran can enrich, why can't we?

"Our objective is we want to have the same rights as other countries," Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said this month at a security conference in Munich.

  123 Agreement

At issue on Perry's trip is what is known as a "123 agreement". Without one, US nuclear energy firms like Westinghouse would lose out on business opportunities with the Saudis.

American officials and outside advisors said the Saudis have dangled the prospect of such contracts if new restrictions are imposed on Iran's nuclear activity.

Trump shares many of the Saudi concerns over the Iran deal, which he has called the worst ever and repeatedly threatened to walk away from.

In January, he vowed he would not issue more waivers of US sanctions—an Iran deal requirement—unless it is amended to prevent Tehran from gradually resuming a variety of currently banned nuclear activities.

Such talks, primarily with European parties to the Iran deal, are thus taking on added importance ahead of a mid-May deadline for more Trump waivers.

Trump has called for a more restrictive deal by raising concerns over expiration dates on some nuclear restrictions and inspection rules for Iranian military sites, among other non-nuclear issues.

As it is now, Iran can use thousands of centrifuges and enrich uranium, albeit to levels far short of weapons-grade material.

Tehran denies ever having considered developing a nuclear warhead, insisting that its nuclear program has pursued peaceful purposes.

Under 123 agreements, foreign countries can buy US nuclear technology and the nuclear know-how that comes with it if they agree not to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium. Both can be used for nuclear weapons fuel.

The irony that an agreement designed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon lets it do more than its rivals is not lost on Saudi Arabia—or other countries that have voluntarily limited the scope of their programs.

At least 23 countries have such agreements with Washington, including South Korea, South Africa, and Vietnam.

The United Arab Emirates entered into a 123 agreement with the US in 2009, one of the strictest ever reached. When the Iran deal was reached, the Emirati ambassador to Washington told the US Congress his country "no longer felt bound" by provisions preventing the UAE from enriching.

  Terrible Idea

While Trump has aggressively courted the Saudi government, there is near universal agreement among national security experts that allowing any country to introduce nuclear weapons in the volatile Middle East would be a terrible idea.

But there are also concerns a US-Saudi disagreement will lead the kingdom to turn to US rivals Russia and China, whose state-owned nuclear companies are competing to build reactors in Saudi Arabia.

That would give the United States even less insight into Saudi Arabia's nuclear activities in the future.

The overlapping issues have Iran deal opponents insisting tougher rules on Iran is the easiest solution.


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