27 experts urge Biden not to allow Saudis to enrich uranium for Israel deal

Ideologically diverse signatories, who include ex-Netanyahu adviser, say they support normalization, but warn such a program may bring Riyadh within reach of nuclear weapons

US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Over two dozen nuclear and Middle East experts on Thursday told US President Joe Biden not to permit Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium on its soil as part of a normalization deal with Israel.

The bipartisan group of 27 signatories wrote in a letter that they backed a potential deal between Jerusalem and Riyadh but expressed their belief that uranium enrichment was not necessary for a civil program, warning that such a process would bring the Saudis close to having offensive nuclear capabilities.

“We urge you to reject the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s request for uranium enrichment as part of or separate from a normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel,” they wrote, according to the Axios news site, which first reported on the letter.

Among the signatories are Jacob Nagel, a former national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; David Albright, a leading international nuclear expert; Olli Heinonen and Pierre Goldschmidt, former deputy director-generals of the International Atomic Energy Agency; as well as several US officials who served under Democratic and Republican presidents.

The letter was co-organized by a US conservative think tank with pro-Israel leanings, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a nonprofit that advances understanding of nuclear proliferation issues.

The US is pushing Israel and Saudi Arabia to forge ties, and as part of the potential agreement, Riyadh is asking for a civilian nuclear program. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Wednesday warned against nuclear escalation in the region, but said that if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia will need one also.

“It’s a useless effort, to reach a nuclear weapon, because you can’t use it,” he told Fox News. “If you use it, you’re going to have a big fight with the rest of the world.”

But, he added, “If they get one, we have to get one.”

(L) Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP); (C) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90); (L) US President Joe Biden on November 2, 2022 in Washington, DC (Michael A. McCoy / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

According to a Thursday report in The Wall Street Journal, officials from Israel and the United States are working together on a plan that would potentially see the Gulf kingdom openly enrich uranium.

Unnamed Israeli and US officials told the paper that Netanyahu has told top nuclear and security experts in Israel to cooperate with US negotiators on a proposal for a “US-run uranium enrichment operation” in Saudi Arabia, as part of a potential normalization deal.

An unnamed senior Israel official told the newspaper that there would be “a lot” of safeguards on any potential program for uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia.

Experts told the Journal that while there are potential remote shutdown mechanisms that could be put in place in a nuclear facility, or systems that could speed up centrifuges until they break, there were no guarantees such arrangements would be failsafe.

The report said that Biden has not yet agreed to the proposal, and noted that Washington officials are still looking at other alternatives.

While welcoming a potential deal, government critics have expressed concern over granting Riyadh a nuclear program, warning that allowing the Saudis to potentially develop a nuclear weapon would go against Israel’s nuclear strategy, and likely spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

“The Saudi crown prince already spoke yesterday about the possibility of Saudi Arabia having nuclear weapons. All his life, Netanyahu fought precisely against such moves. These are the foundations of our nuclear strategy,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said Thursday.

“Strong democracies do not sacrifice their security interests for politics,” he warned. “It is dangerous and irresponsible. Israel must not agree to any type of uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia.”

Both former prime minister Ehud Barak, an outspoken government critic, and Labor party leader Merav Michaeli also warned of consequences over the proposals in interviews Thursday.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen addresses an AJC breakfast in New York on September 21, 2023 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen dismissed the fears, saying there was no need to rush to judgment prematurely, in an interview with Army Radio.

“There are many details for that kind of agreement,” he said. “But Israel’s security takes precedence above everything. We want peace, but also security.”

He also stated that the last details could be finalized as early as the start of 2024.

“The gaps can be bridged,” Cohen told Army Radio. “It will take time. But there is progress.”

As part of the framework, Saudi Arabia is also asking the US for a major mutual defense pact and significant arms deals, as well as Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

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