By JAY SOLOMON
WASHINGTON—The Obama administration plans to resume talks with Saudi Arabia about nuclear cooperation, according to senior U.S. officials, in a move aimed at boxing in Iran and keeping an eye on Riyadh's strategic ambitions.
A team of State Department and Department of Energy officials is expected to visit Riyadh as early as next week to discuss with senior Saudi officials their plans for pursuing nuclear power, according to people briefed on the trip.
The White House's decision is already facing opposition from members of Congress who worry about sharing nuclear technologies with countries in today's increasingly unstable Middle East. The concerns were further fueled by recent comments made by a senior member of the Saudi royal family that their country would seek to develop nuclear weapons if Iran did.
"I am astonished that the Administration is even considering a nuclear-cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Friday. "Saudi Arabia is an unstable country in an unstable region, with senior officials openly proclaiming that the country may pursue a nuclear-weapons capability."
A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to comment Friday. The Saudi government has repeatedly said that it is against the development of nuclear weapons.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia signed a tentative agreement in 2008, during the George W. Bush administration, to cooperate on developing civilian nuclear technologies, but no formal treaty has been negotiated. U.S. companies need a treaty before they can sell nuclear equipment.
"We have offered to send a team to discuss with Saudi officials the kinds of nuclear activities that would be allowed" under the memorandum of understanding, said a senior U.S. official.
The official added that the Obama administration hasn't yet entered into formal negotiations with Saudi Arabia about nuclear cooperation, but that the U.S. wants to gain a better understanding of Saudi plans and intentions.
The Obama administration, like the Bush administration, has sought to promote nuclear-cooperation agreements with allies as a way to better control the flow of nuclear technologies and isolate Tehran by highlighting its violations of nuclear accords.
President Barack Obama signed such a deal with the United Arab Emirates in 2009 that is now viewed by the White House as a model because the U.A.E. committed not to produce its own nuclear fuel. U.S. officials say the commitments guaranteed the U.A.E. wouldn't be able to divert fissile materials for a nuclear-weapons program.
So far, the Obama administration has found no other country willing to make the same commitments, and similar negotiations with Jordan and Vietnam have stalled.
In its 2008 agreement, Saudi Arabia hinted it might be willing to make commitments similar to those agreed by the U.A.E., particularly as a way to pressure Iran. Still, officials briefed on the talks said they were doubtful Riyadh would agree to the same level of restrictions.
But concerns in Washington have mounted as a regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has intensified, fueled by the political rebellions that have broken out across the Middle East. Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former ambassador to Washington, last month told a meeting of British and U.S. servicemen that his country might be forced to develop nuclear weapons in response to Iran's actions.
"It is in our interest that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, for their doing so would compel Saudi Arabia...to pursue policies that could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences," Prince Turki said.
The Saudi government said at the time that Prince Turki doesn't speak on its behalf.
U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia have been strained by the political uprisings in the Mideast. Saudi officials have argued that Washington's press for democratic reforms in the region has weakened key allies such as Egypt and Bahrain, while allowing Iran to take advantage of the instability to spread its influence.
Saudi Arabia has also been pursuing nuclear-cooperation agreements with South Korea, Japan, France and Russia. Riyadh could move to build nuclear reactors without any U.S. involvement.
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