VIENNA, Austria -- The U.N. atomic agency yesterday signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia that exempts the kingdom from inspections of its nuclear facilities, a move that the United States, the European Union and Australia had resisted, agency officials said.
The signing at a meeting of the 35-nation board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ends months of haggling over Saudi Arabia's signing a Small Quantities Protocol (SQP), an arrangement in effect since 1971 to reduce inspections in nations with small nuclear programs.
Saudi Arabia, a key state in the tense Middle East, is not thought to be a direct nuclear proliferation threat, but diplomats were seeking to calm fears amid a major test of wills with nearby Iran, which U.S. officials suspect of seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
There also have been reports -- denied by the Saudis -- that in a crisis, they could use their financial clout to get nuclear technology, or even weapons, from nuclear-armed countries such as Pakistan.
The SQP allows countries to be exempted from requirements to notify IAEA of stocks of natural uranium of up to 10 tons.
This means that once the states -- Saudi Arabia is the 87th to sign the protocol -- provide inventory statements making them eligible for the SQP, inspections are "held in abeyance," an IAEA official said.
But 10 tons of natural uranium can still make enough enriched uranium to produce at least one atomic bomb.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said Tuesday that the SQP had been identified "as a weakness of the safeguards system" of agency inspections.
The IAEA board debated yesterday the possibility of rescinding the SQP, but put off any action until at least the next board meeting in September.
U.S. representative George Glass told the board that the United States had no desire to "single out" Saudi Arabia and was disappointed about press reports implying this, a diplomat who attended the closed-door meeting said.
Mr. Glass said the IAEA had "pointed out earlier this year that the current SQP suffers from serious weaknesses that need to be corrected."
"We are therefore somewhat reluctant to approve additional SQPs that contain this flaw," Mr. Glass said, adding that Washington felt however that states that have negotiated in good faith "should not be penalized for the fact that their SQP came to us for approval at this time."
But Mr. Glass warned: "We cannot continue to approve such flawed SQPs indefinitely."
Saudi Arabia has signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that mandates IAEA safeguards inspections but had resisted signing a safeguards agreement.
Egyptian ambassador Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy said, "I wish countries would be as enthusiastic about requiring the Israelis to sign the NPT as they are about getting more [inspections] from the Saudis."
Israel, which is thought to have about 200 atomic bombs, refuses to sign the NPT.
Saudi Arabia last weekend turned down an EU request to allow full IAEA inspections, saying it would only agree if other countries exempted under the SQP did the same, EU diplomats said.