During recent negotiations, Saudi Arabia reportedly has asked for three big concessions in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel: recognition of Saudi Arabia’s right to uranium enrichment; a US security guarantee for Saudi Arabia; and Israel’s recognition of an “independent Palestinian state.”
With regard to enrichment, Saudi Arabia has proposed that the United States partner with it in building a “nuclear Aramco” that would enrich and presumably export nuclear fuel. Israel, which has its own unacknowledged nuclear weapon program, correctly sees uranium enrichment as a route to nuclear weapons and has long opposed it in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. At the United Nations on September 23, Prime Minister Netanyahu stated, “As long as I’m prime minister of Israel, I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”
Paradoxically, however, he may be working with the Biden administration on a deal that would allow uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia, under US supervision.
A Saudi enrichment program—even in partnership with the United States—would likely prompt other nations, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey, and Egypt, to launch their own enrichment programs. But a multinational consortium could supply the nuclear power plants of Middle Eastern countries while assuring the world that the enriched uranium it produced is used only for peaceful purposes.
The Hamas attack on Israel last week will certainly complicate and likely delay any agreement among Israel, the Saudis, and the United States. Eventually, however, the nuclear fuel needs of the Middle East will have to be addressed, and a multinational uranium enrichment enterprise seems a practical possibility for containing nuclear weapons proliferation in the region.
The enrichment landscape. Under Article 4 of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), every member state has the right to access nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Since the 1970s, however—when India used reprocessing technology provided by the United States to launch its nuclear weapons program and Pakistan responded by launching its own nuclear weapons program using uranium enrichment technology obtained illicitly from the Netherlands—the spread of the capabilities to separate plutonium and enrich uranium have been central to the international debate over nuclear weapons nonproliferation policy.
The motivations for Saudi Arabia (or any other Middle Eastern country) to create a uranium-enrichment program would not be economic. No small enrichment program, including those of Brazil, Iran, and Japan, makes economic sense. Smaller programs simply cannot compete with the major suppliers of enrichment services: Russia, France, China, and URENCO. URENCO, with the second largest enrichment capacity after Russia, is owned jointly by Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
Even the United States abandoned its efforts to subsidize a private enrichment program in the face of this international competition. The only enrichment capacity in the United States today is owned by URENCO.
If it is impossible to prevent the spread of enrichment capabilities to the Middle East, however, the best alternative to a dangerous proliferation of national programs would be a multinational consortium such as a URENCO for the Middle East. A multinational would be more economically viable. It also would provide greater assurance to the world that the enrichment is strictly for peaceful purposes and would be a great confidence-building measure among the member states in the region.
Indeed, one motivation for the founding of URENCO in 1970 was the Soviet Union’s concern about Germany having a national enrichment program. A Middle East enrichment consortium could include protections against technology leakage and foreign partners that have enrichment expertise, including the United States. All the Middle Eastern partners in such a consortium would have to forego national enrichment programs and use the enriched uranium produced by the consortium to fuel their nuclear power plants.
Both moderate and hardline Iranian presidents floated a related idea in 2005. That spring, one of us (Mousavian) accompanied Iran’s future president, Hassan Rouhani, then secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, to separate meetings with the heads of the other Persian Gulf States with whom he offered to share Iran’s enrichment technology. That September Iran’s new hardline President Ahmadinejad, in a speech at the UN, stated, “The Islamic Republic of Iran is prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of uranium enrichment program in Iran … as a further confidence-building measure.”
A Saudi-Iranian enrichment partnership? The location of a multinational Middle East enrichment program would of course be a contentious issue. But if this issue could be dealt with, Saudi Arabia and Iran could be founding partners of a Middle East enrichment consortium. In the first step, building on the recent efforts at détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a regional security and cooperation system could be established in the Persian Gulf. This regional cooperation system could contain a multilateral enrichment mechanism coupled with a pledge by consortium members not to acquire nuclear weapons or national enrichment or plutonium separation programs in the context of wider political, security, economic and cultural cooperation.
Other Middle Eastern countries could join in a subsequent phase. That could provide a long-term solution to concerns about Iran’s national program.
Israel, the only country currently possessing nuclear weapons in the Middle East too could join and monitor the facility if it abandoned its nuclear weapons program and dismantled its nuclear weapons. That would realize the dream of a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone that has been on the international agenda for 50 years.
Given the deep wells of distrust in the Middle East—deepened today by Hamas’ attack on Israel—our proposal may be dismissed as politically infeasible. If political leaders cannot imagine a more peaceful, secure, and stable future for the region, however, no progress will be possible. A Saudi-Iranian uranium-enrichment consortium could be a step on a path toward reduced nuclear risk for the entire region.
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