Thursday, August 4, 2011
Washington Sets The Stage For Nuclear Talks With Riyadh
Saudi Arabia committed to working within international law and conciliating the global community over concerns
By Francis Matthew
American officials are due to visit Saudi Arabia this week to discuss how to move forward on a nuclear cooperation agreement between the two countries. The disclosure of this visit has kicked off a very predictable storm in Washington, as congressmen and others have rushed to lobby against such an agreement with an Arab state, arguing that such a deal would carry grave security risks and the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation.
But the reality is that Saudi Arabia has been very clear for decades that it does not want nuclear weapons, although it does want to develop a civil programme for nuclear power. Like all Gulf states, Saudi Arabia knows that the oil will run out in the end, and the country will need an alternative source of power.
It is clear that nuclear power is the only technology at present that can provide the required power, since solar and other renewable technologies still have a long way to go before an entire country could rely on them as a prime source of power.
The proposed deal between Saudi Arabia and the US was foreshadowed by an agreement in 2008, when president George W. Bush agreed to supply the kingdom with enriched uranium, but the agreement was only tentative and needs to be firmed up.
Such a future agreement would give Riyadh access to American nuclear technology, material and expertise, which the Saudi government has said will be used "in medicine, industry and power generation and to help in the development of both human and infrastructure resources," according to the US State Department in May 2008.
The argument in Washington comes down to a judgment on Saudi Arabia's strategic needs. The hysterical Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has announced that she is "astonished that the administration is even considering a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia," describing Saudi Arabia as "an unstable country in an unstable region, with senior officials openly proclaiming that the country may pursue a nuclear weapons capability. Its ties to terrorists and terror financing alone should rule it out as a candidate for US nuclear cooperation."
But more balanced opinion has to take into account what the Saudis have actually done and said. Firstly, Saudi Arabia has signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has worked hard to implement it.
In addition, the Saudi government has also spoken consistently in favour of a Middle East without nuclear arms, in comments aimed at both the Iranians and the Israelis, and it has regretted American reluctance to engage in this issue in connection with Israel.
Washington's planned agreement with Saudi Arabia has been described as similar to the 2008 agreement with India, but the two situations are very different and should make it easier for Saudi Arabia. The extraordinary agreement with India was pushed through by President George W Bush, and allowed the sale of nuclear reactors and fuel to India, even though India has developed and tested nuclear weapons but has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The Obama administration is trying to gain credibility by saying that is anxious to head off a possible nuclear arms race between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Unfortunately, these administration officials seem to be working in a different world from the reality of what is actually happening in the Gulf, even if talking up the Iranian threat plays well to the crowd in Washington.
But despite the Iranians repeatedly denying that they do not want nuclear weapons, the Ahmadinejad government has refused to allow its claims to be checked and has enjoyed its notoriety as an opponent of the Americans. The situation in Saudi Arabia is totally different where the Saudis have worked to ensure international agreement that their nuclear programme is designed for peaceful purposes. It is also very concerned not to antagonise Washington over this issue.
Strategic thinkers in Saudi Arabia have the grim memory of the bitter dispute with Washington in 1988 when the United States found out that Saudi Arabia had bought over 30 CSS intermediate ballistic missiles from the Chinese.
A ferocious row broke out, and as Thomas Lippman points out, the Saudis argued successfully that many other countries in the Middle East had ballistic missiles and they needed them for parity.
The storm only passed when Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, then Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the US, negotiated an agreement with the United States that Saudi Arabia would keep the missiles provided it signed the NPT, which it then did.
The Saudis do not want a repetition of that angry confrontation with Washington, and their present day nuclear policy was summed up in 2007, when the six Gulf Cooperation Council governments, and the US, Egypt and Jordan, all issued a joint communique that said: "Recognising the grave threat posed to regional and global security by weapons of mass destruction, and wishing to avoid a destabilising nuclear arms race in the region, the participants concur that it is important to achieve the universality of the NPT, and for all parties to comply with it fully ... The participants recognise the goal of a zone free of nuclear weapons on the Middle East."
Who can deny the sense of that peaceful summary?
This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 04/08/2011