U.S., Europe Urge Saudi Nuke Inspections

The United States, Europe and Australia are joining forces in an unusually stark reflection of concern in urging Saudi Arabia (search) to allow in nuclear inspectors before a key meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (search), officials said Friday.

Diplomats accredited to the agency and European officials told The Associated Press that both the European Union and Australia will send formal diplomatic notes to the Saudi government this weekend asking it to consider allowing in the IAEA inspectors.

Washington already has done so, but its chief delegate to Monday's IAEA board meeting, Jackie Sanders, will renew the request at a weekend meeting in Vienna with her Saudi counterpart, said the diplomats and officials, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media on such issues.

State Department press officer Tom Casey confirmed that U.S. diplomatic note had been delivered to the Saudis, saying Washington hoped that the country will agree to independent verification of its nuclear status "on a voluntary basis."

The joint diplomatic push is being sparked by concerns the Saudis could be exempt from any outside policing of their nuclear agenda under an agreement they have negotiated with the IAEA, and by past Saudi nuclear ambiguities, including reported interest in a weapons program.

Senior Saudi foreign policy adviser Adel al-Jubeir (search) sought to deflect such concerns Wednesday, telling the AP in Washington that his country has "no desire to acquire any type of weapon of mass destruction, period."

He also said reports, some based on U.S. intelligence, that Saudi Arabia has sought possible nuclear weapons help from Pakistan are "not correct."

The diplomats said the Australian and EU diplomatic notes will urge the Saudis to go beyond the letter of the arrangement and commit to allow IAEA inspectors into the country, at least to take stock of what nuclear equipment and materials the Saudis might have.

The IAEA's most senior officials regard agreements such as the one reached with Saudi Arabia — and about 70 other countries — as outmoded because they contain loopholes that can potentially encourage would-be proliferators.

But until the IAEA changes its procedures, countries can continue to request such deals.

The Saudis deny any plans to develop nuclear arms, and diplomats close to the IAEA say the agency has no firm evidence to the contrary. But the Saudi push to formalize minimal monitoring for the country comes amid increased nuclear-generated tensions in the region, fed by suspicions that rival Iran might want to develop the bomb.

While the Saudi government insists it has no interest in going nuclear, in the past two decades it has been linked to prewar Iraq's nuclear program, to Pakistan and to the Pakistani nuclear black marketeer A.Q. Khan (search). It also has expressed interest in Pakistani missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and credible reports say Saudi officials have discussed taking the nuclear option as a deterrent in the volatile Middle East.

There was no comment Friday from the Saudi mission dealing with the IAEA. But an Arab diplomat, who demanded he not be identified, said "there was some communication on the issue" between the Saudis, the Europeans, the Americans and Australia.

The IAEA's 35-nation board of governors routinely approves the so-called "small quantities protocols" which free countries from reporting the possession of up to 10 tons of natural uranium — or up to 20 tons of depleted uranium, depending on the degree of enrichment — and 2.2 pounds of plutonium.

Such agreements also allow countries to keep silent about work on nuclear facilities until six months before they are ready for operation. And once a protocol is signed, the country's word is normally not questioned.

With precedents well in place, diplomats say the board will likely approve the arrangement, albeit reluctantly, on Monday.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky declined to comment on the Saudi case. But he said the board meeting will review "a report by the director general ... which identifies possible solutions" to the verification loopholes made possible by such agreements.

The protocols were aimed at freeing up IAEA resources to focus on superpower nuclear rivalries. But the climate has changed since revelations of other loopholes that allowed prewar Iraq, Iran, Libya and others to work secretly on known or suspected weapons programs.

Experts say 10 tons of natural uranium can be processed into the material for up to two nuclear warheads. Iran and South Korea both used substantially less uranium or plutonium in laboratory-scale experiments with suspected links to arms programs.