Nuclear Diplomacy and Disarmament

How a US-Saudi civil nuclear deal might work


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Nuclear treaties and Co-operations; 123 Agreement;

Mains level: Nuclear Cooperation Agreement; Major powers;

Why in the News?

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will visit Saudi Arabia to discuss a Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, aiming to foster Israeli-Saudi normalization.

What is a Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement?

  • A civil nuclear cooperation agreement, often referred to as a “123 Agreement” after Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954, sets the terms under which the United States can engage in significant nuclear cooperation with other countries.
  • This includes the transfer of nuclear materials, technology, and information. Such agreements are designed to ensure that the cooperation is for peaceful purposes and to prevent nuclear proliferation.
  • They require the partner country to adhere to nine nonproliferation criteria, including physical security measures, safeguards, and a commitment not to use the technology for nuclear weapons development. Additionally, these agreements must be reviewed and approved by the U.S. Congress.

Why does Saudi Arabia want a US nuclear cooperation agreement?

Saudi Arabia’s interest in a Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with the U.S. is driven by two primary motivations:

  • Energy Diversification and its Vision 2030: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan aims to diversify the Saudi economy and reduce its reliance on oil.
    • Part of this vision includes developing renewable energy sources, and nuclear energy is seen as a key component.
  • Strategic Considerations: There is also speculation that Saudi Arabia seeks to develop nuclear expertise as a hedge against Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The Saudi leadership has indicated that if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia might consider doing the same.
    • This potential for nuclear proliferation is a concern for arms control advocates and some U.S. lawmakers.

How would the US benefit from such a deal?

  • Strategic Gains: The agreement could be a component of a broader effort to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, thereby enhancing regional stability and security. This would bolster U.S. efforts to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East and build a coalition of allies in the region.
  • Commercial Opportunities: U.S. nuclear companies could secure lucrative contracts to build and operate nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia. This would provide a significant boost to the U.S. nuclear industry, which faces competition from Russian and Chinese firms.
  • Geopolitical Influence: Strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia would reinforce U.S. influence in the Gulf region at a time when China is seeking to expand its presence. This would help maintain the U.S. strategic foothold in one of the world’s most geopolitically significant areas.

What are some likely hurdles to it?

Several challenges could impede the realization of a U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation agreement:

  • Gaza Conflict: The ongoing conflict in Gaza, particularly the high Palestinian casualties resulting from Israeli military actions, complicates Saudi willingness to normalize relations with Israel.
  • Nonproliferation Concerns: There are substantial concerns about the potential for nuclear proliferation. Ensuring that Saudi Arabia complies with stringent nonproliferation standards and does not pursue nuclear weapons capabilities will be a critical and contentious issue.
  • Congressional Approval: Any agreement would need to pass through the U.S. Congress, where it could face opposition from lawmakers worried about proliferation risks and regional security dynamics. Congressional scrutiny could delay or block the agreement.
  • Need of high Technical and Operational Details: Negotiating the specifics of nuclear technology transfer, including whether Saudi Arabia would be allowed to enrich uranium on its soil, and ensuring robust safeguards to prevent misuse of nuclear materials, are complex issues that require careful handling.

Way Forward:

  • Need for Strict Safeguards: Establish stringent nonproliferation safeguards within the agreement, ensuring that Saudi Arabia adheres to international standards and commits to using nuclear technology solely for peaceful purposes.
  • Need Regular Inspections: Implement a robust regime of regular inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor Saudi nuclear facilities and ensure compliance with the agreement.

Mains PYQ:

Q In what ways would the ongoing US-Iran Nuclear Pact Controversy affect the national interest of India? How should India respond to its situation? (15) (UPSC IAS/2018)

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