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Saudi Arabia could convert civilian nuclear to military, Israeli expert warns

A former top official for the Israel Atomic Energy Commission has warned that agreeing to Saudi Arabia’s demand to be allowed to build a nuclear power plant as part of a normalization deal with Israel may create a dangerous international precedent and effectively prompt a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

“It won’t matter how many guarantees we receive from the International Atomic Energy Agency,” Ariel (Eli) Levite, who served as principal deputy director general for policy at Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission from 2002 to 2007, told Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, on Monday.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly set three conditions for signing a normalization agreement with Israel — access to advanced American defense technology such as the THAAD missile system, the establishment of a defense alliance with the United States, and a green light to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes.

For the last demand, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said Monday that Israel’s approval would not be required.

“Dozens of countries operate civilian nuclear programs. This is not something that endangers them or their neighbors,” Hanegbi told the Kan public broadcaster, adding that the issue would be solely between Washington and Riyadh.

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Levite, the former Atomic Energy Commission deputy director, said there was no problem with nuclear reactors for energy production as long as they are properly maintained. However, he added, “If a security or operational failure occurs, there can be an enormous environmental fallout. We know this from several incidents in the past, such as Chernobyl and Fukushima” — two severe nuclear leaks in Ukraine in 1986 and Japan in 2011.

“If Saudi Arabia builds a reactor, they can only place it near the Red Sea, because a reactor needs large amounts of water for cooling, and if a disaster or terrorist attack occurs there it won’t be a simple matter — for us too, since we are not far away,” he added.

Ariel (Eli) Levite speaking at a conference at the Reichman Institute in Herzliya, 2019. (YouTube screenshot via Zman Israel; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Israel is also worried about the possibility of a civilian reactor being converted for military applications, Levite noted.

He said the biggest problem with Riyadh’s demand was that “they’re not satisfied with reactors for energy purposes, but are also interested in a uranium enrichment program. This is the most problematic and sensitive part of the deal that may be currently in the making.”

Were this to happen, “there are two problems: First, making Saudi Arabia parallel to Iran in terms of the development of its nuclear program. Second, it opens a Pandora’s box for the Americans,” Levite said, because “if Saudi Arabia is allowed to do this, it creates a problematic international precedent.”

Other Middle East countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, have made a commitment to the US to use their nuclear reactors only for civilian purposes, forgoing enrichment of uranium or plutonium, in what has become known as the “nonproliferation gold standard.”

Levite argued that the Saudis’ nuclear ambitions are attributable to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s desire to establish himself as a leader in the region, ahead of the UAE and Iran.

Bin Salman’s demands present the US with a conundrum. On the one hand, US President Joe Biden is interested in closing a deal with the Saudi leader in order to score an important geopolitical achievement before the 2024 elections by getting the Saudis to sign a normalization deal with Israel, and in return having Israel make concessions on the Palestinian issue, Levite said.

On the other hand, some members of Congress, mostly Republicans but even Democrats such as New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, insist on maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in defense technology, and may not consent to Saudi Arabia’s demand without prior Israeli approval.

A possible solution could be to build a uranium enrichment plant owned by the Americans on Saudi soil, Levite said, adding that several creative solutions of this kind are being discussed.

However, if the US allows Saudi Arabia to go ahead, there is a tangible risk that a nuclear arms race will be set off throughout the Middle East. And — in the worst news of all for Israel and other countries in the region — dictatorships are joining this race.