America’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy Has Created the Problem It Was Designed to Solve

America’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy Has Created the Problem It Was Designed to Solve

Washington’s inconsistent approach to nuclear nonproliferation in the Middle East has created problems that could have been avoided. It must avoid doing again in the future.


This week’s visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Riyadh has rekindled an ongoing conversation over the Middle East, civil nuclear power, and the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The debate has been around for decades. Every administration for the last twenty years has sought to address concerns over WMDs while wrestling with the conundrum that civil nuclear power programs can provide abundant, low-carbon energy yet also potentially lead to a nuclear weapons program.

As we come upon the twentieth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, which was driven by false intelligence of WMDs, it is time to take stock of our policies, decisions, and any false predicates that threaten stability in this strategic region of the world. In doing so, the central question we must ask is: do current U.S. civil nuclear power policies strengthen or weaken our ability to deliver on our nonproliferation responsibilities? Our answer must be clear-eyed and strategically empathetic. We must be clear-eyed in that the United States is not the sole or dominant civil nuclear partner in the twenty-first century. We must also be strategically empathetic in that U.S. diplomacy and statecraft should account for the realistic security constraints confronting those countries pursuing civil nuclear programs.


Dictators and WMDs

This should begin with context and recent history. American forces invaded Iraq vowing to destroy Iraqi WMDs and end the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein. If you are Saddam Hussein, you were the one person who knew there was no nuclear WMD program. Yet you said nothing, ultimately losing your country and your life. Why did he do that? One guess is he could not let Iran know he didn’t have a WMD program. “If Iran has a weapon, I must have a weapon,” is a statement we have heard for the last ten years (particularly from Saudi Arabia), yet we do not seem to understand why this statement is made.

We have a blind spot to this mindset, and this appears to have been lost on U.S. policymakers since the invasion and to this today.

On December 19, 2003, long-time Libyan president Muammar el-Qaddafi stunned much of the world by renouncing his county’s WMD programs and welcoming international inspectors to verify that Tripoli would follow through on its commitment. Unlike Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi actually had a program, but after seeing the United States invade Iraq, he more than likely thought he would be next.

This actually would have been a positive for our nonproliferation goals had Qaddafi not been captured and killed on October 20, 2011. Whether there is a direct correlation between the United States and his death is up for debate. It was then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who famously stated following the dictator’s death, with a laugh, “We came, we saw, he died.” Notwithstanding Qaddafi and how he died (at the hands of rebel forces, supported by a NATO-led no-fly zone), the message that was sent to the world was clear: never give up your WMD program.

This message was and is not lost on Kim Jong-un of North Korea or the mullahs of Iran. Again, we need to strategically empathize with these nations and their leaders—not to accept them or agree with them, but to understand their mindset so we can counter them effectively.

The Inconsistency of U.S. Nuclear Nonproliferation

By 2008, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) kicked off its civil nuclear program after several years of consultations with U.S. experts. A key component of any nuclear deal with the United States is the signing of a nuclear nonproliferation agreement, a Section 123 Agreement. Much has been written about the 123 Agreement in general, but recent attention has focused on what has been characterized as the “Gold Standard” 123 Agreement—the type of agreement signed by the UAE. It’s important to note that this agreement was signed by UAE after the requests for proposals (RFPs) had gone out to U.S., Korean, and French vendors, but it wasn’t required as a precondition for U.S. vendors to respond. The agreement was finalized and signed by both countries in December of 2009—the same month Korea was selected as the winner of the $20 billion bid.

A couple of key points in this process are misunderstood today and require clarification. First, a signed 123 Agreement is not a prerequisite to bid or compete on a project, nor does a signed agreement guarantee the United States wins the work. There’s limited, if any, incentive for a country to consider signing a 123 Agreement if there is no viable commercial offer by a U.S. vendor. Second, the signing of a Gold Standard 123 Agreement, which is now being demanded by U.S. nonproliferation policymakers, has severely constrained our ability to compete in civil nuclear power throughout key regions of the world. The reason is that while the Gold Standard 123 (like a standard 123) prohibits uranium enrichment and fuel reprocessing, it goes beyond the legitimate intent of the original agreement, which wasn’t designed to challenge a country’s sovereignty with respect to the pursuit of civil nuclear power as granted by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

This is highly relevant because shortly after signing the Gold Standard 123 with UAE came the announcement that the Obama administration had started negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. This produced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015. Touted by the administration as the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever struck, it essentially gave Iran the right to enrich uranium (which they had been doing in violation of the NPT) and in many respects allowed Tehran a legitimate and legal path to a weapons program. That is precisely what our nonproliferation policies are designed to stop.

It is fundamentally inconsistent for us to condition nuclear collaboration with our allies on their commitment to not enrich uranium in perpetuity, yet give to Iran, this region’s greatest threat to the United States, Israel, and Sunni Arabs, the right to enrich uranium. The argument will be that the JCPOA gave us unfettered access to what Iran is doing with its nuclear program, yet this has proven to be false. Furthermore, the United States also handed the entire Iranian civil nuclear program to Russia and China. And now China is also aggressively offering Saudi a complete package of nuclear collaboration. In an almost undefendable explanation by U.S. nonproliferation experts as to why we did this, the response is that a 123 Agreement with Iran is unnecessary because the United States is not providing the civil nuclear power program. This sums up precisely the principled inconsistency of our policies and why we need real statecraft.

Working with Allies

Since the signing of the JCPOA in 2015, we have heard a consistent message from our Sunni allies: “If Iran gets a weapon, I must have a weapon.” We must understand this is not only their right to take such a stance, it is the unintended and unfortunate position that policymakers have forced them into.

In June 2022, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) released a solicitation for two large-scale nuclear power plants. France, Korea, Russia, and China all were invited—the United States was not. Why not?

While the Biden administration has offered many explanations, one that is patently inaccurate and devoid of strategic empathy is that the Saudis have refused to sign a 123 Agreement—specifically, a Gold Standard 123 Agreement. Again, to empathize with KSA, their geopolitical context, and their recent history, their position is that they can’t sign such an agreement given the backdrop of the Iranian JCPOA and Iran’s legitimate pathway to a nuclear weapons program. Moreover, the United States has maintained that Westinghouse, a U.S. nuclear power company, didn’t receive a KSA offer to bid due to the absence of a 123 Agreement. However, this explanation is weak and insufficient because, as pointed out in the UAE case, 123 Agreements follow a viable commercial offer—not the other way around.

Currently, the Saudis are working to bring the United States into a legitimate conversation about their pursuit of civil nuclear power. We have been called the “preferred nation” to work with by KSA. That’s a bold statement considering we haven’t offered a viable solution, our track record in nuclear new build is uninspiring, and we continue to watch Iran inch closer to a weapons program. But it demonstrates that we have a chance to recover and get back on track.

First, understand why KSA says what it must about its nuclear program and offer them a better deal; one that brings in commitments to allow KSA to fully utilize their natural resources in uranium, enrichment, reprocessing, etc., a standard 123 with caveats around their peaceful pursuits. In short, a security guarantee that in essence would say to Gulf Cooperation Council nations, “we will come to your collective defense if you are ever threatened by a nation or entity with a WMD capability”—a NATO Article 5 type agreement around WMD threats which is more powerful and strategic than going hands off the wheel as we do now.