Saudi King Abdullah made up his mind to press ahead on uranium enrichment – in defiance of repeated US requests – after his June 29 conversation with US President Barack Obama at the White House ended in discord on nuclear questions. The king was not satisfied with US efforts to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon and decided to take matter in his own hands.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 451 of July 2: US-Saudi Arabia at Odds on Iran Tactics – King Abdullah Demands Direct US Action to Halt Iran's Nuclearization—or Else…)
Shortly after he returned from Washington, a Saudi cabinet meeting chaired by Crown Prince Sultan, deputy premier and minister of defense and aviation was called for July 6 and resolved to expedite the signing of a nuclear cooperation pact with France.
The ruling council rarely makes its decisions public, but, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and Gulf sources, the projected pact with France, defined as cooperation for building and operating the "atomic and renewable energy city" near Riyadh as announced by King Abdullah in April, had a more far-reaching function. It was designed in fact to expedite the concentration of all the kingdom's nuclear facilities in one place, using the structures standing ready for two years at the new nuclear city.
The core component was to be the secret uranium enrichment facility currently housed in the southern military town of Khamis Mushayt near the Yemeni border.
Abdullah brings Jordan aboard
Jumping the gun on the pact, French nuclear engineers and technicians have been working on the project since early this year, the first Western experts to see at first hand what is going on in the Saudi nuclear city.
Our sources quote the Saudis and French officials involved in the project as predicting that the enrichment facilities will start working at full tempo within four to five months after their reinstallation in the nuclear city.
Abdullah came away from his conversation with Obama angered rather than persuaded by Obama's proposal for Saudi Arabia to adopt as its model the United Arab Emirates-United States' nuclear cooperation plan, under which the UAE would receive nuclear reactors and other equipment from America.
This proposal put King Abdullah's back up for two reasons: The Saudi royal family is on bad terms with the UAE's ruling Al- Nahyans. Furthermore, Washington proposed bringing forward its year-old nuclear proposition to the UAE – provided the Emirates' consented to join American sanctions against Iran.
This would be a powerful sanctions tool, since the UAE has long served Iran as its main financial, trading, aviation and transport hub and export and import lifeline to the outside world.
And indeed, the UAE carried out its side of the bargain in the last two weeks. By denying fuel to Iranian airliners, the Gulf federation awarded the US a major strategic breakthrough and dealt Iran a grave setback. However, seen from Riyadh, the US-UAE transaction looked like an American attempt to cut Saudi Arabia out of its dealings over Iran and a mark of its mistrust of the Saudi throne.
When they met last week, King Abdullah rebuked the US president for failing to run his transaction with the UAE past his government first.
Riyadh places orders for French military satellites
Following another confidential cabinet decision against Washington, the king decided to couple the oil kingdom's nuclear partnership with France with expanded military acquisitions, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources reveal. Billions of petrodollars were earmarked to buy off-the-shelf French military satellite systems which France will launch for Saudi Arabia in the next two years. France will also be commissioned to build Saudi ground stations to receive the data gathered by the satellites and operate the stations until Saudi teams are trained.
Like the nuclear pact, this contract too is still unsigned but already in the initial stages of implementation.
A Saudi delegation last month visited the French military intelligence imagery center at the French Air Force base in Creil, north of Paris, to get coordination procedures started.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that just as Iran used North Korea's services to try and establish in Syria a nuclear infrastructure to feed Tehran's program with plutonium, Saudi Arabia is taking steps with French help to make Jordan its "logistical nuclear fuel backup" for supplying the Saudi nuclear program with fuel for a nuclear weapon.
On returning from Washington, the Saudi King got in touch with Jordan's King Abdullah II and gave him a green light to expedite negotiations with concessionaires for mining Jordanian uranium deposits and building enrichment facilities and nuclear reactors.
These reactors will produce electricity and also nuclear fuel rods.
Abdullah encourages Jordan to tap uranium bonanza, build reactors
The two kings Abdullah decided to go fast forward, although well aware of extreme Obama administration objections to both their plans. After talking to the Saudi monarch, Abdullah II ordered the Jordanian Atomic Energy Commission to kick-start negotiations with the several firms vying to sell the kingdom the technology for its first nuclear power plant.
Experts estimate that Jordan has at least 65,000 tons of uranium under the desert outside Amman and possibly an additional 100,000 in southern, central and eastern Jordan, making its deposits the 11th largest in the world. This bonanza of high-quality ore relatively close to the surface may be enough to revolutionize Jordan's economy which is heavily dependent on outside assistance.
French and Chinese geologists are carrying out intensive explorations in search of more finds.
Earlier this year, Jordan signed a joint venture with France's Areva to mine uranium in central Jordan under a 25-year concession. In May, the French nuclear giant Areva, Canada's AECL and Russia's Atomstroyexport were shortlisted to compete for designing the kingdom's first 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plant.
The Jordan French Uranium Mining Company (JFUMC), a joint venture between AREVA and Jordan Energy Resources Inc., has been operating within a 1,400-square-kilometre concession area in the central region, including the Swaqa, Khan Azzabib, Wadi Maghar and Attarat areas.
Amman has presented to Washington an ambitious program for developing its uranium wealth and in parallel building enrichment plants that would make the kingdom the Middle East hub for distributing nuclear fuel to Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf States, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. It has met with US disapproval.
Washington fears Jordan too unstable to keep nuclear facilities secure
Washington's refusal to let Jordan exploit its own uranium deposits to make nuclear fuel has held up their nuclear cooperation talks. The American side insists on guarantees from Jordan that would oblige it to buy reactor fuel from the international market – a safeguard against its potential diversion for military uses (after the Iranian precedent).
Washington proposes an accord permitting Jordan to mine the ore but not convert it into fuel. This would spike Jordan's plans, backed now by Saudi Arabia, to become a regional centre for uranium enrichment. In return, the US would help Jordan launch a civilian nuclear program for generating 30 percent of its energy needs by 2030.
The Jordanian side stands by the right to produce its own nuclear fuel as a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
There are three major considerations behind the Obama administration's alarm over its close Middle East ally's nuclear plans:
– Another nuclear power would be introduced to the Middle East, flying in the face of Barack Obama's ambition for worldwide denuclearization, starting with this volatile region.
– The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and its king are not powerful or stable enough to keep their fuel enrichment installations secure.
– A high-tech nuclear industry would make Jordan an irresistible target for its covetous neighbors, such as Syria, Iran and even possibly Iraq or Islamic extremists.
– Given a free hand, Jordan or its conquerors may seek nuclear weapons and pose the same threat to the world as Iran.
US grants Israel nuclear perks to maintain its military edge
Powered by full Saudi backing and a French vested interest, the Hashemite king feels he can overlook Obama's objections and move forward with his nuclear plans.
Cairo is watching these events with interest.
Monday, July 5, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak took advantage of his visit to Paris for a discussion with French president Nicolas Sarkozy on the integration of his own nuclear plans in the burgeoning Saudi-French-Jordanian program. This was before he went into the Percy military hospital for medical check-ups (see HOT POINTS of July 7)
The acute acceleration of a nuclear race on the moderate Arab side of the Middle East figured large in President Obama's talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House Tuesday, July 6. It resulted in a presidential pledge, leaked later by US and Israeli sources, to sell Israel materials for the production of electricity, advanced nuclear technology and other items, without requiring Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
This pledge was in keeping with Obama's public commitment to guarantee Israel's military edge.