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A Grand Middle East Bargain

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One of the reasons given or surmised for President Joe Biden’s reluctance to press Israeli President Bibi Netanyahu has been Biden’s search for a stable resolution in the Middle East involving an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel. But Israel’s current actions are making that more difficult. Saudi Arabia issued a statement yesterday.

It’s a harsh statement, but not entirely different from the statements of other nations. Israel is torching its future relations. Saudi Arabia has its reasons for exaggerating, though, give the US interest in its relations with Israel. The primary benefit Saudi Arabia sees from that interaction is what it can get from the US.

First, there is the defense agreement that will be struck. Second, Saudi Arabia has long wanted a nuclear program to match Iran’s, but, unlike Iran, has neither the industrial base nor the uranium deposits to support it. For the United States to transfer nuclear information or materials, a 123 Agreement is required by law. 123 Agreements specify limitations on nuclear activities to make sure that what the United States has supplied will not support activities leading to nuclear weapons.

123 Agreements have been becoming more restrictive over time. The “gold standard” now includes prohibitions on uranium enrichment and reprocessing of fuel elements, either of which is essential for building nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia would like a free hand for enriching uranium.

They have said that they would start a nuclear weapons program if Iran produces a nuclear weapon. Despite Iran’s piling up higher-enriched uranium, they have shown little to no sign of developing nuclear weapons in the near future. Iran has everything they need programatically for nuclear weapons. The fact that they have not actually built any is significant.

Negotiations are ongoing between the US and Saudi Arabia. Negotiations on a nuclear agreement date back at least to the Trump administration. The stumbling block is usually the Saudis’ desire for enrichment capabilities.

As long as Israel’s war against Gaza continues, there will be no overarching agreement. As the war continues, the question becomes whether there can be any agreement at all.

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