Officials worry the pact may limit efforts to improve the monitoring of nuclear material in developing countries.
Though the Saudi government has denied any intention of using its nuclear program for weapons development, past allegations that the Saudis sought weapons-making capabilities and reports that Saudi agents have recently visited Pakistan have fueled concern among Western governments.
The IAEA is set to approve the measure at a June 13 meeting of its member nations, despite U.S. and European efforts to pressure Riyadh to withdraw its request.
“The Americans are putting pressure on the Saudis to drop their plan to sign the Small Quantities Protocol, but it’s unclear if the Saudis will agree,” a European diplomat told Reuters.
Under the Small Quantities Protocol, an accord that member nations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with limited amounts of nuclear material can sign with the IAEA, the Saudi government would report any import or export of nuclear material to the agency but would not be obligated to submit to inspections.
Between 70 and 86 other countries — mainly developing nations — have similar deals with the agency though some IAEA officials view the agreements as loopholes in agency protocols that could lead to increased proliferation, according to the Associated Press.
The Saudi request, made prior to the May review of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty underscores the need for closer monitoring and attention to the 37-year-old treaty, according to some analysts.
“This is a very mixed bag and this falls far short of what Saudi Arabia and other states ought to do to make the treaty more effective, which is to allow for broad, and if necessary, intrusive inspections of declared and undeclared nuclear facilities,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. said. “Only in that way can the IAEA gain greater confidence that they can detect illicit nuclear activities and prevent future Irans and North Koreas.”
The request by the Saudi government comes at a particularly tense time in the fight against global proliferation.
In May, the five-year review of the NPT, the 1968 accord policed by the IAEA that aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, ended with no agreement or consensus on future actions to strengthen the treaty.
“We are ending after a month of rancor — when everyone agreed that the system is ailing but not busted — and the same issues continue to stare us in the eyes,” IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said in a New York Times interview following the conference.
Also in May, ongoing talks aimed at convincing Iran to shut down its uranium enrichment program or face referral to the U.N. Security Council faltered with Iran and European negotiators adjourning while a new strategy for talks was laid out.
And the United States has failed to convince North Korea to restart multi-nation talks to convince the recluse regime to abandon its nuclear program. Following its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003, North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors and announced for the first time it had manufactured a nuclear weapon.
“It’s not as if we haven’t had problems in the past,” Kimball said. “There is a coincidence of events that we have right now that is creating a very difficult time for the nonproliferation cause.”
While most analysts and diplomats agree that an IAEA-Saudi Arabia Small Quantities Protocol pact would provide the agency with at least some knowledge of the Saudi nuclear program — Saudi Arabia is one of about 30 NPT countries that has not signed a standard safeguards agreement with the IAEA allowing monitoring and inspection — IAEA officials admit the protocol, or SQP, needs review.
“Several months ago we brought to the attention of our member states the problems associated with one of the remaining weaknesses in the safeguards system, in particular the Small Quantities Protocol,” IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said. “We began consultations with them and we’ll be presenting to them the results of that and possible remedies.”
The agency designed the protocol in the 1970s to include small, non-nuclear countries in the NPT without forcing unnecessary accounting and controls on them, according to Gwozdecky.
“The SQP was designed in those days when there weren’t the same problems or risks that we now know exist,” he said.
American officials agreed, calling the current protocol “a relic” that they hope will be modified by the end of the year.
To date, there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia has a weapons program. But the country has been linked in the past to Iraq’s nuclear program and to A.Q. Khan, the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear program who admitted running a black market network that sold weapons secrets to several countries. In 2003 reports also surfaced that the Saudis had conspired with Pakistan to gain nuclear-capable missiles and delivery systems in response to fears that Iran and Israel were developing similar programs.
Currently, the United States is urging the Saudi government to sign a general safeguards agreement, but to make some additional commitment to adhere to the beefed up SQP, according to Mark Goodman, physical scientist with the Office of Multilateral Nuclear Affairs at the State Department.
Goodman said the commitment could take several forms, including a statement from the Saudis saying they would allow inspections or other steps beyond the current protocol, a pledge to adopt the new SQP once it is adopted or an agreement to wait until the more stringent rules are adopted.
“We would welcome it if they [the Saudis] took a leadership role in accepting whatever fix is needed to the SQP,” Goodman said.
“At this point it is not quite clear what steps they are prepared to make.”
But, experts say the IAEA is “duty bound” to submit the Saudi request under agency procedure despite U.S. and EU concerns.
“It’s not something [the IAEA] has any choice over. … I don’t think any country thinks they can hold this back now,” said one expert familiar with IAEA policy. “It would be difficult to say [the IAEA] is going to discriminate against Saudi Arabia when everyone else is treated another way.”