“It will take all of us working together – government officials, and diplomats, academic experts, and scientists, activists, and organizers – to come up with new and innovative approaches to strengthen transparency and predictability, reduce risk, and forge the next generation of arms control agreements.”
– Wendy Sherman
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
June 2, 2022
Julia Masterson

Saudi Arabia, IAEA Discuss Safeguards

October 2020

Saudi Arabia and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are engaging in talks to amend the country’s safeguards agreement, seeking to provide the agency with additional tools to verify the peaceful nature of Saudi Arabia’s expanding nuclear program.

Khalid Al-Sultan (left), leader of Saudi Arabia's nuclear energy program, meets with Cornel Feruta, the acting IAEA director-general, in September 2019. Saudi and IAEA officials have continued to discussing upgrading the nation's safeguards agreement with the agency. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)Saudi Arabia currently has in place a small quantities protocol (SQP) with the IAEA, concluded in 2005. SQPs are applied to nations with little or no nuclear activities. They were designed in the early 1970s to fulfill the IAEA’s safeguards mandate without overburdening agency resources on states with negligible safeguards-applicable activities and material. Under the original SQP, the IAEA has a limited tool kit with which it can inspect and verify the peaceful nature of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program.

As Riyadh moves to grow its civilian nuclear program, including by pursuing construction of a facility possibly used for the production of uranium yellowcake, IAEA officials and states within the region have called on Saudi Arabia to expand the scope of its safeguards agreement with the agency. (See ACT, September 2020.) Saudi Arabia also plans to operate two large nuclear power reactors and is currently constructing its first research reactor at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, Al Jazeera reported on July 21.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi said on Sept. 14 that the agency is in talks with Saudi Arabia, adding that the kingdom is “interested in developing nuclear energy, for peaceful purposes of course.”

News of discussions between Saudi Arabia and the IAEA came amid a greater effort by Grossi to strengthen implementation of a revised SQP. “In 2020, the old standard SQP is simply not adequate,” Grossi told the agency’s Board of Governors on Sept. 14.

The agency adopted a revised SQP in 2005 that expands the IAEA’s safeguards privileges. Where the original SQP limited IAEA verification activities and did not require states to submit a declaration of nuclear activities, the revised SQP updates certain requirements, most notably the submission of a declaration report and the possibility of IAEA safeguards inspections.

Ninety-four qualifying states have adopted the revised SQP, but 31 maintain agreements under the original version, according to the IAEA. Saudi Arabia was the last state to conclude an SQP with the original text and has not amended its agreement. “I have decided to reinvigorate the agency’s efforts to encourage all remaining states to amend or rescind their SQPs,” Grossi urged.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program remains in its early developmental stages, meaning that it can still be effectively safeguarded under an SQP model agreement. But should Saudi Arabia introduce nuclear materials, such as low-enriched uranium, and operate a nuclear reactor, it will be obligated to rescind its SQP and transition to a full-scope comprehensive safeguards agreement with the agency.

“When they upgrade their activities including by the introduction of nuclear material in the kingdom, then we will have to have a stronger safeguards system,” Grossi confirmed.

Grossi said Riyadh and the IAEA are also discussing implementation of an additional protocol to the nation’s safeguards agreement, which would further strengthen the agency’s safeguards in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, IAEA Discuss Safeguards

UN Defies United States on Sanctions Snapback

UN Defies United States on Sanctions Snapback The United States threatened to penalize any country that fails to enforce UN sanctions on Iran that the Trump administration claims were reimposed Sept. 19, but UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council that he would not take steps to implement the UN measures, which were lifted as a result of the 2015 nuclear deal. In a letter to the Security Council reported on by Reuters, Guterres said there is “uncertainty” over the status of the sanctions and that “pending clarification,” he will not take any action. Despite...

Iran’s Nuclear Program Remains on Steady Trajectory

A Sept. 4 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms that Iran continues to exceed limits on its uranium enrichment program imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) and is incrementally expanding its stockpile of uranium enriched up to 4.5 percent. While Iran’s persistent violations of the deal are troublesome, its rate of enriched uranium production has not increased over the course of 2020, indicating that Tehran is not actively dashing toward a bomb nor accelerating its production of fuel. This carefully calibrated approach supports assertions by Iranian leaders that...

IAEA Report Notes Progress on Investigation

The most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s safeguards confirmed that inspectors have already accessed one undeclared site in Iran and will visit a second location in September. This is an unsurprising, but positive, confirmation that Iran and the IAEA are following through on the terms of an Aug. 26 agreement to finally allow agency inspectors access to follow up on evidence of possible undeclared nuclear materials and activities. While it is unfortunate that the dispute over access between the IAEA and Iran took nine months to resolve and that the IAEA’s Board...

UN Experts See North Korean Nuclear Gains

September 2020
By Julia Masterson

North Korea’s production of nuclear weapons continues despite aggressive sanctions, according to an article by CNN on Aug. 4 of an unreleased report by a UN panel of experts. The new report says Pyongyang has likely developed the capability to manufacture miniaturized nuclear devices that can fit on its ballistic missiles.

North Korea tests its Hwasong-14 ICBM on July 28, 2017. A UN panel of experts recently assessed that the nation has probably succeeded in miniaturizing its nuclear warheads enough to fit on long-range missiles. (Photo: Getty Images)The UN report also details one member state’s independent conclusion that North Korea “may seek to further develop miniturisation in order to allow incorporation of technological improvements such as penetration aid packages or, potentially, to develop multiple warhead systems.”

Mastery of warhead miniaturization suggests that North Korea could ostensibly deliver a nuclear weapon via its ballistic missiles, including its long-range systems. Although North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon since September 2017, the experts who contributed to the report assessed that the country’s six nuclear tests likely aided its development of miniaturized warheads.

As they continue to advance, Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities increasingly threaten the security of its neighbors in the region. Japan’s 2020 Defense White Paper, released in July, acknowledged for the first time that North Korea possesses the ability to attack Japan. The Japanese Defense Ministry noted that, in addition to miniaturized warheads, “North Korea is presumed to have acquired atmospheric re-entry technologies required for the operationalization of Nodong and Scud-ER ballistic missiles, within whose range Japan lies.” According to the ministry, this suggests North Korea “already has the ability to attack Japan with nuclear weapons fitted to these ballistic missiles.”

Pyongyang slammed Japan’s white paper as “a stream of nonsense on our possession of nuclear weapons,” according to a July 15 foreign ministry statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. But North Korean leader Kim Jong Un touted the country’s nuclear weapons program during a July 28 speech. “Thanks to our reliable and effective self-defense nuclear deterrence, the word ‘war’ would no longer exist on this land, and the security and future of our state will be guaranteed forever,” he said. In May, Kim presided over a meeting of North Korean military officials who pledged to implement “new policies for further increasing the nuclear war deterrence of the country.” (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

North Korea is also accelerating its fissile material production, the UN panel report finds. According to an Aug. 4 analysis by Oliver Hotham at NK News, who saw the report, the enrichment facility at Yongbyon is operational, and an experimental light-water reactor located within the complex is under construction. Once completed, that reactor may be used to produce plutonium. As of now, North Korea’s five megawatt-electric gas-graphite reactor is the country’s only known source of plutonium, but that reactor is believed to have remained inoperative since 2018.

The report also examines the topic of unconfirmed enrichment activities at Kangson, which has been identified by several open-source analysts but has never been addressed by Pyongyang. Ankit Panda, a researcher with access to the classified report, wrote in NK Pro on Aug. 7 that the report says the states that have inquired about Kangson “do not have information to confirm that the facility in Kangson is for the uranium enrichment.” In 2018, the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that the facility at Kangson is “not inconsistent” with an enrichment plant, and also said that the “timeline of [the facility’s] construction is not inconsistent” with North Korea’s reported uranium-enrichment program.

On a broad scale, the UN panel report exemplifies the extent to which a global sanctions campaign has failed to stifle North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs, in particular its development of nuclear weapons and advanced ballistic missiles. The report identifies several instances in which North Korean entities may have succeeded in circumventing UN sanctions to engage with sanctioned groups in China and Russia.

In one case, the report details Pyongyang’s Second Economic Committee’s attention to undertaking sustained “efforts to procure dual-use ‘choke point items’ from foreign sources.” Panda explained that these dual-use items could include the large, liquid-propellant engines in Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile fleet, for example. Because the report has not been made public, it remains unclear whether the referenced foreign groups transferred actual materials or equipment, or whether the transfer to North Korea consisted of technical know-how only. According to Panda, the UN report cites concerns about North Korean technicians that may be involved in collaborative international scientific and technical research.

The United States has not openly acknowledged the report. But U.S. Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft said on Aug. 5 that North Korea’s nuclear program continues to jeopardize security in the region. It is “something we keep a very close eye on,” she said.


Sanctions have failed to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear warheads for missiles.

North Korea Sets Conditions for Diplomacy

September 2020
By Julia Masterson

Despite intermittent efforts by the Trump administration to negotiate with North Korea on its nuclear weapons program, talks between the two countries remain stalled, and there is little indication they will resume before the U.S. presidential election in November. Addressing a potential summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before the election, Choe Son Hui, North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs, said on July 4 that the United States “is mistaken if it thinks things like negotiations would still work on us.”

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un (left) and his sister Kim Yo Jong attend the April 2018 Inter-Korean Summit in Panmunjom, South Korea. Kim Yo Jong, who heads the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea recently said North Korean denuclearization "is not possible at this point in time." (Photo: Getty Images)“We do not feel any need to sit face to face with the U.S., as it does not consider the…dialogue as nothing more than a tool for grappling [with] its political crisis,” she added.

But the prospect for future diplomacy between the United States and North Korea is not entirely moot. In a July 10 statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, Kim Yo Jong, who heads the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea, said that the previous “theme” of North Korean-U.S. negotiations, “‘denuclearization measures versus lifting of sanctions,’ should change into a formula of ‘withdrawal of hostility versus resumption’” of negotiations.

Kim Yo Jong is the sister of North Korea’s leader.

“I am of the view that the…summit talks are not needed this year and beyond,” she said, adding that her position “does not necessarily mean the denuclearization is not possible. What we mean…is that it is not possible at this point in time.”

“I remind the U.S. that denuclearization on the Korean peninsula can only be realized when there are major changes made on either side, i.e., the irreversible, simultaneous major steps to be taken in parallel with our actions,” she noted.

She did not elaborate on North Korea’s negotiating position, but said that Pyongyang’s previous offer to permanently dismantle the nuclear facilities at the Yongbyon complex in exchange for partial sanctions relief is no longer on the table. That offer was withdrawn after the Trump administration demanded an additional concession by North Korea during the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, in February 2019. (See ACT, March 2019.)

Kim Yo Jong’s statement is consistent with earlier sentiments by officials in Pyongyang suggesting that the United States must reform its approach to North Korea if it seeks a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis at hand. The Trump administration has engaged in negotiations with North Korea on an intermittent basis since 2018, but Washington continues to demand that North Korea fully denuclearize before yielding any benefit of doing so. Washington also continues to hold the threat of mounting sanctions over Pyongyang in an attempt to economically force North Korea’s denuclearization. To this, Kim Yo Jong said in her statement, “we are fully capable of living under sanctions, so there is no reason for us to be driven” by the United States.

Rather, she said that U.S. sanctions have little influence over North Korea’s decision-making. She stated that, in her reference to “major changes from the other side,” she did “not mean the lifting of sanctions.”

Kim Yo Jong’s address clearly outlines North Korea’s conditions for renewed diplomacy with the United States, but it remains unclear whether negotiations will resume ahead of the election. The Trump administration has not commented on her statement, but during a July 10 visit to Japan, Steve Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, emphasized the “continued U.S. readiness to engage in dialogue” with North Korea.

A key North Korean official told the Trump administration to adjust its goals for diplomacy to succeed.

Saudi Arabia May Be Building Uranium Facility

September 2020
By Julia Masterson and Shannon Bugos

With Chinese support, Saudi Arabia may be constructing a new uranium processing facility to enhance its pursuit of nuclear technology, The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug. 4. Citing unnamed Western officials, the report said that a facility near Al Ula is intended to be used to produce concentrated uranium, known as yellowcake, from mined ore. The reported development comes as U.S. and Saudi officials have been unable to agree on the terms of a nuclear cooperation agreement to support Saudi plans to develop nuclear energy.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands at the 2016 G20 Summit in China. Recent reports have suggested that China is backing the construction of a uranium processing facility in Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)The Saudi Energy Ministry reportedly has categorically denied the existence of such a facility at that location. If confirmed, such a facility could signify Saudi progress toward constructing an indigenous uranium enrichment program, as yellowcake production is a key step in refining uranium for civilian or military uses.

Saudi officials have stated their intent to pursue a uranium enrichment program as part of the country’s plan to build 16 civilian power reactors over the next 20 to 25 years at a cost of more than $80 billion. (See ACT, October 2019.) Companies from the United States, Russia, South Korea, China, and France are competing for a contract to build the first two of the planned 16 nuclear power reactors, but Riyadh has yet to select a vendor.

Israel also raised concerns about the new facility to the Trump administration, Axios reported on Aug. 19. There are “worrying signs about what the Saudis might be doing, but it is not exactly clear to us what's going on in this facility," said one senior Israeli intelligence official.

Saudi Arabia is not believed to have any uranium enrichment program as of now, but mastery of the enrichment process could embolden Riyadh to enrich to weapons-grade levels.

Revelation of the facility and Saudi Arabia’s possible lack of transparency has spurred renewed concern from members of Congress about how the Trump administration might address Saudi nuclear ambitions.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told Arms Control Today that “President Donald Trump’s cozying up to Saudi Arabia has threatened our national security interests and undermined our values,” referring in particular to the administration’s lack of response to the October 2018 murder in Turkey of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident.

“The return on this investment is now clear: a purported ally turning to China to accelerate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” said Kaine.

Meanwhile, three Democratic members from the House Foreign Affairs Committee—Reps. Joaquin Castro (Texas), Ami Bera (Calif.), and Ted Deutch (Fla.)—sent a letter on Aug. 17 to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requesting information and a briefing on the recent revelation as it “raises further questions about whether Riyadh’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) led a bipartisan group of senators in writing an Aug. 19 letter to Trump also demanding further information and a briefing on the status of U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear cooperation negotiations and the state of U.S. discussions with China on Riyadh’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“Riyadh’s apparent lack of transparency regarding its nuclear efforts coupled with a growing ballistic missile program poses a serious threat to the international nonproliferation regime and United States objectives in the Middle East,” the senators wrote.

Concerns about Riyadh’s nuclear intentions have been exacerbated by rhetoric from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who in 2018 pledged that “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” (See ACT, June 2018.)

A U.S. intelligence analysis circulated in early August detailed a second newly constructed structure near Riyadh, according to an Aug. 5 report by The New York Times. Analysts speculated it could be an undeclared nuclear facility, but the confidence with which that assessment was made is not clear.

Reports of the existence of the site near Al Ula allege that Saudi Arabia was aided by China in its construction. Asked about China’s role in Saudi Arabia’s nuclear development, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Webin said Aug. 7 that “China and Saudi Arabia are comprehensive strategic partners,” who “maintain normal energy cooperation.” He did not address the suspected yellowcake facility, but said that Beijing “will continue [its] strict fulfillment of international obligations in nonproliferation and pursue cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy with other countries.” China and Saudi Arabia’s nuclear collaboration dates back to 2012, when the two countries signed their first cooperative pact.

Saudi Arabia has also received help from China on the significant expansion of its domestic ballistic missile program, according to U.S. intelligence agencies in June 2019. (See ACT, July/August 2019.)

Currently, Saudi Arabia has a comprehensive safeguards agreement in place with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that is complemented by an outdated small quantities protocol, reflective of the negligible size of its nuclear program at the time its safeguards agreement was concluded in 2005. Under that protocol, Saudi Arabia is not obligated to invite IAEA inspectors into its nuclear facilities, including any potential yellowcake production facilities.

IAEA officials have been pushing for Saudi Arabia to transition to a full-scope comprehensive safeguards agreement for several years as Riyadh has moved to expand its civilian nuclear program. Following the revelation of the possible yellowcake facility, Iran’s permanent representative to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, urged Riyadh on Aug. 8 to strengthen its agreement with the agency and invite inspectors in.

U.S.-Saudi negotiations on the nuclear energy cooperation deal, called a 123 agreement after the section of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act requiring it, have stalled over the past year.

An April report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office suggested that U.S.-Saudi talks have faced two unresolved issues. First, Riyadh has not agreed to sign an additional protocol to its limited safeguards agreement, which would provide the IAEA with a broader range of information on its nuclear-related activities. Second, Saudi Arabia has so far declined to promise to forgo nuclear fuel production activities, a step that is called a nonproliferation “gold standard.” (See ACT, June 2020.)

A 123 agreement sets the terms and authorizes cooperation for sharing U.S. peaceful nuclear technology, equipment, and materials with other countries. A 123 agreement can include a gold standard commitment in which a cooperating country agrees to refrain from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, as those activities can be used to produce weapons-grade material. By forgoing those, countries adhering to a gold standard signal their commitment to nuclear nonproliferation.

In September 2019, Energy Secretary Rick Perry reportedly sent a letter to Saudi officials stating that the United States would require Saudi Arabia to adopt an additional protocol with the IAEA and commit to the gold standard. (See ACT, October 2019.)

Kaine questioned U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea during his July 21 hearing for the top arms control job at the State Department on whether he would maintain that requirement. The State Department leads negotiations on 123 agreements, which, once complete, require congressional approval.

“You have my commitment that I will pursue the so-called gold standard in these 123 agreements,” said Billingslea. “I believe [it] should also be pursued with the Saudis.” He did not address the additional protocol.


Reports suggest that Saudi Arabia could be starting a uranium enrichment program.

UAE Reactor Reaches Criticality

September 2020

The United Arab Emirates on Aug. 1 became the first Arab country to operate a nuclear power plant when officials announced that the first of four planned reactors at the Barakah nuclear power station achieved criticality by completing a sustained fission reaction. According to the UAE leadership, once all four units at the Barakah plant are operational, nuclear power will account for a quarter of the country’s electricity and reduce the nation’s reliance on oil and gas.

The UAE’s nuclear progress has highlighted concerns about the security implications of an uptick in nuclear programs in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is in the early stages of developing its nuclear program, and Iran has a demonstrated uranium-enrichment capability. Israel has an assumed arsenal of nuclear weapons.

But according to Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at The Century Foundation with expertise in the Persian Gulf region, the UAE nuclear program does not pose a proliferation risk. Abu Dhabi has taken deliberate measures to publicly signal the strictly peaceful application of its nuclear program, Esfandiary told Arms Control Today. These measures include the country’s decision to forgo uranium enrichment, among other things. The UAE is also a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has had an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency in place since 2009. (See ACT, October 2019.)—JULIA MASTERSON

UAE Reactor Reaches Criticality


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