VIENNA, Austria – The United States, the European Union (search) and Australia are pressuring Saudi Arabia (search) to allow U.N. inspectors access to the kingdom to verify it has no nuclear assets, according to a confidential EU document obtained by The Associated Press.
The Saudis have so far defied the requests, according to the document provided by a diplomat accredited with the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) in Vienna, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency. The diplomat insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to share the memo with media.
There is little concern the Saudis are trying to make nuclear arms, but Riyadh's resistance to inspections adds another worry for a top-level meeting of the IAEA this week that is focusing on North Korea and Iran.
Saudi officials want to sign a deal with the IAEA that would exempt the kingdom from inspections because the amount of nuclear material it says it holds is too small.
Such deals, called small quantities protocols, are in effect for more than 70 countries, most of them small and in politically stable parts of the world. It allows countries whose nuclear equipment or activities are below a minimum threshold to submit a declaration instead of undergoing inspection.
The document suggests Saudi Arabia, although in the volatile Middle East, is seeking a similar deal.
It quoted Saudi deputy foreign affairs minister, Prince Turki bin Mohammed bin Saud al-Kabira, as telling EU officials in Riyadh that his country would be "willing to provide additional information" to the agency "only if all other parties" to the protocol did the same.
The Saudi push for the deal comes amid increased nuclear-generated tensions in the region, fed by suspicions that rival Iran might want to develop a bomb.
The Saudis insist they have no plans to develop nuclear weapons. However, in the past two decades, the country has been linked to prewar Iraq's nuclear program, to Pakistan and to the Pakistani nuclear black marketeer A.Q. Khan.
As Saudi officials try to get the deal signed, the agency is attempting to address what increasingly is being seen as a dangerous loophole to safeguards meant to ensure the adherence of the Nonproliferation Treaty.
Meanwhile, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei told an agency board meeting Tuesday that Iran needed to improve cooperation with investigators looking into its uranium enrichment program — a longstanding complaint of the agency and Western governments.
Iran became a concern in 2003, when revelations of nearly two decades of secret nuclear activities surfaced. The work included uranium enrichment, which can be used to make the core of nuclear warheads.
Iran insists it wants to enrich uranium only to generate nuclear power, but nonetheless froze its enrichment program late last year at the outset of nuclear talks with France, Britain and Germany.
ElBaradei, in his opening statement to the board, also urged Iran to allow agency visits to two sites — one where the United States says Iran may be testing high-explosive components for nuclear weapons, and one where the agency believes Iran has stored equipment that can be used both for peaceful and nuclear weapons-related purposes.
Also on the board meeting's agenda is North Korea. Though that country ordered IAEA inspectors out in late 2002, ElBaradei said the agency stands ready to work with it "to ensure that all nuclear activities ... are exclusively for peaceful purposes."