US examines whether Saudi nuclear programme could lead to nuclear weapons

In an image by Maxar Technologies/Google Earth, taken on May 27, some analysts think that the two square buildings (top, right) could be a Saudi nuclear facility. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Intelligence agencies in the United States are scrutinising efforts by Saudi Arabia to build up its ability to produce nuclear fuel that could put the kingdom on a path to developing nuclear weapons.

Spy agencies in recent weeks circulated a classified analysis about the efforts underway inside Saudi Arabia - working with China - to build industrial capacity to produce nuclear fuel. The analysis has raised alarms that there might be secret Saudi-Chinese efforts to process raw uranium into a form that could later be enriched into weapons fuel, according to US officials.

As part of the study, they have identified a newly completed structure near a solar-panel production area near Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that some government analysts and outside experts suspect could be one of a number of undeclared nuclear sites.

US officials said that the Saudi efforts were still in an early stage, and that intelligence analysts had yet to draw firm conclusions about some of the sites under scrutiny. Even if the kingdom has decided to pursue a military nuclear programme, they said, it would be years before it could have the ability to produce a single nuclear warhead.

Saudi officials have made no secret of their determination to keep pace with Iran, which has accelerated since US President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal with Teheran. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged in 2018 that his kingdom would try to develop or acquire nuclear weapons if Iran continued its work towards a bomb.

Last week, the House Intelligence Committee included a provision in the intelligence budget authorisation bill requiring the administration to submit a report about Saudi efforts since 2015 to develop a nuclear programme. It was a clear indication that the committee suspects that some undeclared nuclear activity is going on.

The report, the provision stated, should include an assessment of "the state of nuclear cooperation between Saudi Arabia and any other country other than the United States, such as the People's Republic of China or the Russian Federation".

An article in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday (Aug 4) said that Western officials were concerned about a different facility in Saudi Arabia, in the country's northwest desert. The Journal said it was part of a programme with the Chinese to extract uranium yellowcake from uranium ore. That is a necessary first step in the process of obtaining uranium for later enrichment, either for use in a civilian nuclear reactor or, enriched to much higher levels, a nuclear weapon.

Saudi Arabia and China have publicly announced a number of joint nuclear projects in the kingdom, including one to extract uranium from seawater, with the stated goal of helping the world's largest oil producer develop a nuclear energy programme or become a uranium exporter.

Intelligence officials have searched for decades for evidence that the Saudis are seeking to become a nuclear weapons power, fearful that any such move could result in a broader, destabilising nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

So far, Israel is the only nuclear weapons state in the region, a status it has never officially confirmed.

In the 1990s, the Saudis helped bankroll Pakistan's successful effort to produce a bomb. But it has never been clear whether Riyadh has a claim on a Pakistani weapon, or its technology. And 75 years after the detonation of the first nuclear weapon used in war - today is the anniversary of the Hiroshima blast - only nine nations possess nuclear weapons.

But ever since the debacle of the Iraq invasion in 2003, based on faulty assessments that Saddam Hussein was restarting the country's once-robust nuclear programme, intelligence agencies have been far more reluctant to warn of nuclear progress for fear of repeating a colossal mistake.

At the White House, Trump administration officials seem relatively unperturbed by the Saudi effort. They say that until the Iranian nuclear programme is permanently terminated, the Saudis will most likely keep the option open to produce their own fuel, leaving open a pathway to a weapon.

But now the administration is in the uncomfortable position of declaring it could not tolerate any nuclear production ability in Iran, while seeming to remain silent about its close allies, the Saudis, for whom it has forgiven human rights abuses and military adventurism.

President Trump and his top aides have built close ties to the Saudi leadership, playing down the killing of the journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and enlisting the crown prince in so-far fruitless Middle East peace efforts.

It also comes at a time when the Trump administration is aggressively taking on China on numerous fronts, like its handling of the novel coronavirus and its efforts to crack down on freedoms in Hong Kong. So far, the White House has said nothing about China's array of nuclear deals with the Saudis.

Spokesmen for the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment. A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Late Wednesday, the US State Department said in a statement to The New York Times that while it would not comment on intelligence findings, "we routinely warn all our partners about the dangers of engagement with the PRC's civil nuclear business", referring to the People's Republic of China, "including the threats it presents of strategic manipulation and coercion, as well as technology theft. We strongly encourage all partners to work only with trusted suppliers who have strong nonproliferation standards".

The statement also said that "we oppose the spread of enrichment and reprocessing", and that the US would "attach great importance" to continued compliance by the Saudis to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It urged Saudi Arabia to conclude an agreement with the US "with strong nonproliferation protections that will enable Saudi and US nuclear industries to cooperate".

Saudi Arabia's work with the Chinese suggests that the Saudis may have now given up on the US and turned to China instead to begin building the multibillion-dollar infrastructure needed to produce nuclear fuel. China has traditionally not insisted on such strict non-proliferation safeguards, and is eager to lock in Saudi oil supplies.

Regional experts say that part of the Saudi calculation stems from the view that the kingdom can no longer count on America's willingness to counter Iran.

That view gained more currency in the kingdom after the Obama administration signed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, known as the JCPOA. It forced Iran to give up 97 per cent of its fuel stockpile, but left open a path to production in the future.

"They believe that as a result of the JCPOA they can't rely on anyone reining in the Iranians, and they are going to have to deter Iran themselves," said Mr Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA officer and director of intelligence and counterintelligence at the Energy Department.

The irony, Mr Mowatt-Larssen said, is that Saudi Arabia has sought both civilian nuclear partnerships and defence agreements with two powers - Russia and China - that have deep economic ties to Iran.

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