Middle East Deals Should Include Nuclear Energy Collaboration | Opinion

State legislatures will not report official results of the 2020 presidential election until December. Assuming legal challenges don't change those results, Joe Biden will become president in January. When he enters the White House, he will have a rare opportunity to advance the cause of nuclear security and nonproliferation across the Middle East. Unfortunately, he appears to believe that a hurried return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is the most viable path to that goal. His administration should instead leverage the success of the Abraham Accords, which secured the recognition of Israel by the UAE and Bahrain, to launch a new era of safe and peaceful civilian nuclear energy cooperation.

While Israel has never enjoyed more than a cold peace with its neighbors, there has been a rapid warming of its ties with the UAE and Bahrain, as well as nascent partnerships with other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. The three governments have already signed agreements on financial services, joint investments, countering terrorism, defense surveillance technologies and more. Joint ventures are moving ahead on tourism, health, agriculture, water, space, science and trade.

Civilian nuclear energy collaboration is not yet on the table, and never was before, but it is an area ripe for progress. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have demonstrated a strong interest in civilian nuclear energy technologies. The Emiratis began building nuclear power plants after signing a "gold standard" agreement with the U.S. in 2009, under which they foreswore the right to enrich uranium or to reprocess plutonium, both of which could yield fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Saudi Arabia is building a nuclear research reactor and has plans for power generation plants. Yet it has refused to give up the rights to independent enrichment and reprocessing inside the kingdom. To that end, Riyadh is reportedly working with China on a facility for extracting yellowcake from uranium ore, a key step in the fuel cycle that may culminate in enrichment.

If true, this would be a notable setback for non-proliferation. But Saudi Arabia's hesitation to close off its path to nuclear weapons is not unprecedented. The 2015 nuclear deal let Iran preserve its options despite Tehran's serial deception of nuclear inspectors and violation of binding non-proliferation agreements.

Still, both the U.S. and Israel have ample reason to ensure the Saudi nuclear program remains peaceful. Hostile regimes like the Islamic Republic of Iran pose the greatest threat, but today's allies could be tomorrow's adversaries. After all, the Islamic Republic inherited the Shah's nuclear program.

US-Saudi diplomacy
Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, walk towards the Treaty Room at the State Department, October 14, 2020, in Washington, DC. Manuel Balce CENETA / POOL / AFP/Getty

Four-way nuclear cooperation between the U.S., Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia could help prevent a cascade of Middle Eastern nuclear proliferation, but should not be tied to a potential nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Iran. Four-way cooperation could address a range of issues: nuclear safety and security; emergency preparedness and joint exercises; IAEA monitoring and verification; and joint readiness to deal with radiological terrorism and hazardous materials proliferation.

Israel does not object to peaceful uses of nuclear energy by its Arab neighbors, provided they comply with their international non-proliferation commitments. Jerusalem's concern is with the spread of technologies for enrichment and reprocessing, which are integral to nuclear weapons development.

More than 30 countries have peaceful civilian nuclear energy programs without enrichment or reprocessing and are satisfied to buy their nuclear fuel through proliferation-proof supplier agreements. There also are a handful of countries, such as Germany and Japan, for which the development of enrichment and reprocessing abilities has not been a precursor to a nuclear weapons program. Argentina is another example, although it has not signed the Additional Protocol of its Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement. Yet four of the five major violators of the treaty have been Middle Eastern governments: Iran, Syria, Libya, and Iraq (North Korea is the fifth). Hence the U.S. and Israeli concern.

To ensure a coherent non-proliferation policy that includes the restraints necessary to address U.S. and Israeli concerns, Washington should hold all Gulf players to an equally high standard. If a new administration wants to prevent Arab allies from demanding or clandestinely pursuing enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, Washington will have to return to the position it maintained (together with UN Security Council resolutions supporting it) before the faulty 2015 nuclear agreement—namely that no additional countries can enrich and reprocess at all. This would include a total ban on fissile materials (uranium and plutonium) technologies and a total prohibition on advanced centrifuge R&D, which facilitates clandestine enrichment.

If the Biden administration wants to return to the 2015 deal, it would have to be an improved version that applies this higher standard to Iran. Tehran wants more, but a viable non-proliferation regime depends on a single standard for all signatories who seek peaceful nuclear power.

If Washington can bring Riyadh on board with a civilian nuclear technology cooperation agreement alongside Israel and the UAE, the Middle East may be able to look forward to a future in which Arab, Israeli and American nuclear scientists work shoulder to shoulder in the name of peace and security. This cooperation would put to rest the false claim that Israel, rather than Iran, is the primary threat to Arab security. And it may incentivize other Arab countries to normalize their relations with Israel once they see the benefits—in terms of security, technology and prosperity—of cooperation with Israel and the U.S.

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace Engineering Faculty. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's acting national security advisor and head of the National Security Council. Mark Dubowitz is FDD's chief executive. An expert on Iran's nuclear program and sanctions, he was sanctioned by Iran in 2019.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.