Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Program

By |2019-10-01T12:13:28-07:00October 1, 2019|

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From declaration of support of a nuclear-weapons-free-zone to suspicions

Saudi Arabia is not a nuclear weapons state and has always declared that it is only interested in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. However, recent developments in Iran are increasing the militarization of the Middle East. These together with some murky indicators and secrecy surrounding Riyadh’s nuclear program, strongly suggest that Saudi Arabia is considering developing nuclear weapons, while avoiding inspections.

Saudi Arabia manifested its own interest in nuclear energy during the 1960s, and started its civilian nuclear program in the 1970s. Its nuclear plant for the development of a civilian nuclear program – the King Abd Al-Aziz Centre for Science and Technology (KAACST) – was built in 1977 in Riyadh. Subsequently, the Atomic Energy Research Institute (AERI) was established in 1988. In that same year, Riyadh signed the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and, since the start of the 21st century, has advocated for the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East.

There has been credible speculation that Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Pakistan’s and Iraq’s nuclear weapons programs was a signal of shared ambitions. These speculations were reinforced by the declaration of former Saudi diplomat Muhammed al Khilewi, who defected to the United States in the 1990s and leaked that his government had plans to acquire a nuclear weapon.[1] The veracity of these statements, however, is still shrouded in doubt and was not confirmed by the Clinton administration, which granted asylum to al Khilewi.

In December 2006 Saudi Arabia, and six other member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – namely, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – announced that the Council was commissioning a study on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. It was on this occasion that Saudi Arabia outlined plans to construct up to 16 large nuclear reactors over the course of 20 to 25 years to provide the Kingdom with 17 GWe of nuclear capacity by 2040.[2] Two years later, Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding under the auspices of the Atoms for Peace program with the Bush administration, through which the U.S. would sell nuclear reactors and nuclear fuel to Saudi Arabia for its development of a civil nuclear program, specifying that no support would be given to the building of an atomic bomb by Riyadh. Shortly after the memorandum with the U.S., Saudi Arabia established nuclear cooperation agreements with France (2011); South Korea (2011); China (2012); and other nuclear companies such as INVAP, in Argentina (2015); Rosatom, in Russia (2015); CNEC, in China (2016 and 2017); JAEC and JUMCO, in Jordan (2017). It had also initiated talks with the government of the Czech Republic, Russia and United Kingdom with the purpose of fulfilling its aspiration to build its nuclear rectors.[3]

Suspicions about Riyadh’s true intentions surfaced at the end of the 1990s, when rumors about possible collusion on a joint nuclear weapon program between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia surfaced due to several high-profile interactions between the two governments.[4] However, as had happened previously, the veracity of the nuclear program could not be established. Officially and publicly, in 2015, Saudi Arabia applauded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran, the P5 – namely, China, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russia -, plus Germany. However, soon after Saudi Arabia expressed concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

In 2016, Nuclear Threat Initiative reported: “Saudi Arabia possesses only a rudimentary civil nuclear infrastructure, and currently lacks the physical and technological resources to develop an indigenous nuclear weapons capability.”[5] It became nonetheless a country of concern when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared in 2018 that if Iran were to develop a nuclear bomb, Saudi Arabia would follow suit.[6]

In April 2019, Bloomberg published some satellite pictures showing the development, over two years, of a columnar vessel at a reactor facility in Riyadh that would plausibly contain atomic fuel, and that seemed to be nearly completed.[7] The discovery gave international experts good reason to be alarmed. In fact, Saudi Arabia does not allow inspections and is not part of the international legal framework that ensures that civil nuclear programs won’t be transformed to military uses. The images do nothing but cast doubt over Saudi Arabia’s credibility. Despite the fact that Riyadh has repeatedly stated that the country does not intend to develop a nuclear weapon, some contradictions are worthy of consideration.

First, the Saudi government has repeatedly maintained that its nuclear power program constitutes a way to move from fossil fuels consumption for a twofold reason: for climate change imperatives and for diverting all its fossil fuels resources to the international market, rather than to internal consumption. However, as brilliantly argued in an article published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Saudi Arabia is not aggressively seeking to pursue solar energy, which would be the most economically convenient source of energy for the country, alternative to fossil fuels, even when Iran was limited by the 2015 deal.[8] As the article points out:

The limited efforts in installing solar power capacity on the part of the Saudi government suggest that climate action and economics may not be the driving motivations for its extensive nuclear energy plan. Indeed, members of the Saudi regime have, on other occasions, made it clear that their interest in nuclear energy derive from the idea that it would help them acquire the capability to make nuclear weapons and match Iran, whose regional status is seen to have risen as a result of its uranium enrichment program.

To this point, some have argued that solar energy cannot benefit Saudi Arabia long-term because it is not exportable, and, therefore, cannot provide a reliable source of income for the country. However, this argument does not take into account that, until all countries start relying on alternative energy sources instead of fossil fuels, if it’s really in Saudi Arabia’s interest to go green, they can rely on solar energy domestically and keep exporting oil and gas externally, as Riyadh’s previous statements seem to imply.

Dirty business with the Trump administration

Second, Bloomberg’s article elucidates that the Trump administration is advancing sales of nuclear power plants and technology to Saudi Arabia. For this purpose, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry approved six secret authorizations, known as Part 810 authorizations, which would authorize sharing U.S. nuclear power technology with Saudi Arabia. This move is creating alarm within the U.S. Congress, as well as the international community. The Part 810 authorizations refers to the process set forth in 10 Code of Federal Regulations Part 810, which, under the authority of section 57.b of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, allows the U.S. Secretary of Energy to engage, directly or indirectly, in the production of special nuclear material outside the United States, and share technological information – but not pieces of equipment – for the functioning of nuclear reactors. The information is non-classified, but contains sensitive details about nuclear energy reactors U.S. companies are trying to sell to Saudi Arabia and, unlike Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act (AEA) of 1954,[9] they don’t require congressional oversight.

While respecting the need for U.S. companies to protect their proprietary information from competitors, the U.S. Congress has demanded that the Department of Energy share more information about the Part 810 authorizations with the Subcommittee Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on, in order for Congress to have sufficient information to fulfill its constitutional oversight responsibilities, and to fulfill legal obligations that require that the Congress must be “fully and currently informed,” as the Atomic Energy Act requires. The U.S. House of Representatives presented an Interim Staff Report in February 2019, titled “Whistleblowers Raise Grave Concerns with Trump Administration’s Efforts to Transfer Sensitive Nuclear Technology to Saudi Arabia.” The report collected testimonies by whistleblowers from within the Trump administration, and states:

The Trump Administration’s interactions with Saudi Arabia have been shrouded in secrecy, raising significant questions about the nature of the relationship. In 2017, President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, orchestrated a visit to Saudi Arabia as the President’s first overseas trip. Mr. Kushner also met on his own with then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who subsequently ousted his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, launched a crackdown against dozens of Saudi royal family members, and reportedly bragged that Mr. Kushner was “in his pocket.” In October 2018, the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was met with equivocation by President Trump and other top Administration officials. This month, the White House ignored a 120-day deadline for a report on Mr. Khashoggi’s killing requested on a bipartisan basis by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Within the United States, strong private commercial interests have been pressing aggressively for the transfer of highly sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia—a potential risk to U.S. national security absent adequate safeguards. These commercial entities stand to reap billions of dollars through contracts associated with constructing and operating nuclear facilities in Saudi Arabia—and apparently have been in close and repeated contact with President Trump and his Administration to the present day. However, experts worry that transferring sensitive U.S. nuclear technology could allow Saudi Arabia to produce nuclear weapons that contribute to the proliferation of nuclear arms throughout an already unstable Middle East.[10]

The Report raises concerns over the U.S.-Saudi Arabia deal. When questioned, U.S. Secretary Perry said that, if not provided by the U.S., Saudi Arabia will look for the support of China and Russia for the development of their nuclear program. In his view these countries do not support non-proliferation, and the U.S., by establishing deals with the Saudis, is therefore establishing a framework for monitoring that Saudi Arabia’s program is compliant with non-proliferation requirements.[11] U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been asked by congressman Brad Sherman – Chair of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation – whether the deal would provide Saudi Arabia with nuclear technology before they enter into agreements that will prevent the reprocessing and enrichment of uranium. Pompeo responded that U.S. State Department and the Department of Energy have been working jointly to not allow that to happen. However, when further rebuked that the Saudis might want to avoid international inspections and close control of their nuclear program because they, ultimately, want to build the nuclear bomb, Pompeo vaguely responded: “We are working to ensure that the nuclear power they [Saudi Arabia] get is something we understand and doesn’t present that risk.”[12] However, as correctly highlighted by Congressman Sherman, the secrecy shrouding the six authorizations renders Pompeo’s declaration before Congress inconsistent.

Third, the U.S.-Saudi Arabia deal satisfies both political and economic interests. Politically, the possession of nuclear weapons is seen as protection, as well as prestige, especially for countries located in unstable regions, surrounded by perceived threatening neighbors. From an economic perspective, the nuclear energy market is very slim, so lobbyists can exercise pressure to induce a government to enter into deals with countries that do want to invest on a nuclear program, as is the case of the U.S.-Saudi Arabia deal. A few American energy firms, including General Electric, NuScale, TerraPower and Westinghouse are interested in securing nuclear deals with countries that aim to develop a nuclear program. They don’t seem to care whether a country has nuclear weapons aspirations, although this is primarily a governmental responsibility. Westinghouse, the largest nuclear reactor supplier in the United States, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2017, and was purchased by the Canadian Company Brookfield Business Partners, a subsidiary of Brookfield Asset Management Inc. This company has, in turn, leased an unprofitable building in New York City – the 666 Fifth Avenue – from President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family’s real estate company – Kushner Companies LLC – in 2007. The purchase of the 666 Fifth tower was intended to place the Kushners at the top ranks of New York real estate from their headquarters in New Jersey, where they were accumulated a huge portfolio of garden apartment complexes. Kushner Companies LLC moved their company headquarters to 666 Fifth, from where they intended to develop an empire that included former industrial buildings in Brooklyn, apartments in Maryland and development sites in Jersey City, N.J. But they were unable to get the office rents they expected in 2007, making it difficult to pay the initial $1.8 billion debt on the building because the recession hit causing the company to enter into debt.[13]  The price paid by the Kushner Companies LLC was the highest price ever paid for a single office building in the United States, and the Kushners have been trying to off-load the debt for many years. Although this deal has no apparent connection with the deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, the timing of the Brookfield’s deal suggests the contrary. Moreover, Jared Kushner and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are very close friends, an element that throws suspicion over the reason behind the deal. To complicate things further, other participants interested in the deal with Saudi Arabia have exercised an enormous amount of pressure. These are retired Army lieutenant general and President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has been trying to secure a deal of this kind with the Middle East for years and is currently under investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. The U.S. House of Representatives 2019 Report mentioned above elucidates how Flynn worked closely on the plan with a group of retired U.S. generals and admirals who had formed a private company to promote it.[14] The IP3 Corporation, a nuclear technology company established in 2016 by retired U.S. military officials, is, indeed, another actor interested in pursuing the deal with the Saudi Crown.[15]  Together with the Kushner Company, these companies raise issues of conflict of interest with regard to the deal they have been pursuing.

The U.S. administration argued that there is no direct linkage between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, and declared that it is working to ensure that Saudi Arabia’s program develops transparently and only for civil purposes. However, any nuclear power plant that has been built (or is planned) in Saudi Arabia will be fueled with uranium that can be enriched to uranium-235, which is what is needed to build a nuclear bomb. Moreover, all nuclear reactors produce plutonium, which is also used to make nuclear weapons. The most dramatic aspect is that Saudi Arabia has been part of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 1962, but hasn’t subscribed to the comprehensive safeguards agreement, which would allow IAEA inspectors to access its nuclear facilities. The Kingdom only signed the Small Quantity Protocol (SQP), which “was made available to States with minimal or no nuclear material and no nuclear material in a ‘facility.’”[16] Technically, Saudi Arabia signed the IAEA Safeguards Agreements, which has been in force since January 2009,[17] but “[t]he original small quantities protocol suspends the application of many provisions of the comprehensive safeguards agreement,”[18]  thereby not allowing the IAEA inspectors to access Saudi Arabia’s nuclear facilities. Yukiya Amano, former IAEA’s director general, stated clearly that before importing nuclear fuel, Saudi Arabia would have to agree to a program of inspections and other safeguards. He appealed to Saudi Arabia to withdraw from the SQP, which he has defined as “old ways of doing business,”[19] and conclude and implement IAEA’s additional protocols, instead. So far, Saudi Arabia has not responded to the IAEA’s request.

Even if concerns over the possibility that Saudi Arabia is pursuing a nuclear weapon are cast aside, a recent approval of an $8 billion sale of conventional weapons to Saudi Arabia by the Trump administration without Congressional approval has met with Congressional concern and has contributed to increased tensions in the region for two reasons, at least. First, the deal was approved following the crisis with Iran in June 2019 after Iran downed a U.S. Global Hawk drone in the Strait of Hormuz. Shortly after this event Mike Pompeo confirmed the U.S. was trying to build a global coalition against Iran, not only in the Middle East, but also in Europe and Asia, thus adding fuel to the fire.[20] Second, there is concern that the weapons could be used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen to kill thousands of civilians. So far, the Trump administration has failed to fully explain its role in the war against Yemen and members of Congress have heavily criticized U.S. support to Saudi Arabia, considering its horrifying human rights record.[21] The U.S. Senate approved a joint resolution in July 2019 that prohibits the selling of the weapons.[22] However, for it to become effective, the U.S. Congress will need to overcome a presidential veto by supporting the resolution with a two-thirds vote.

There are at least three signs that indicate that Saudi Arabia might be in the process of building nuclear weapons, and constitute reasons for concern. First, the small research reactor is estimated to be completed by the end of this year. While it is considered to be too small to represent a nuclear proliferation risk, the secrecy surrounding its construction is raising suspicion.[23] With its obligation as a non-nuclear weapons state under the NPT, Saudi Arabia would have to accept IAEA’s scrutiny over its nuclear program. But Riyadh is not allowing IAEA’s inspections and, so far, has not withdrawn from the SQP agreement. Second, there are signs that the deal with the Kushner Companies LLC is directed at selling nuclear material to the Kingdom while avoiding Congressional control and public scrutiny. Third, the refusal by the Trump administration to disclose the details of the six authorizations it has granted Saudi Arabia is surrounded by an unusual level of secrecy. It is vital that this type of deal is supported by full transparency and control. That not being the case, there is enough reason to believe that the intention of both the U.S. administration and Saudi Arabia is to provide the latter with nuclear weapons. Only time will allow the public and policymakers to fully understand the nature of the U.S.-Saudi deal. Considering the dangers this deal contains, clarity might be achieved only after Saudi Arabia will have developed a bomb, most probably in the immediate aftermath of its first nuclear test. Once again, the U.S. government is embarking on the foolish role of international arbiter of all the countries on Earth, and places itself as the only exception, dangerously as well as arrogantly. The muddy atmosphere surrounding the U.S. – Saudi nuclear deal has not been dispelled. We are left only with the hope that, if and when clarity is achieved, it won’t be too late.

Footnotes

[1] Fitzpatrick, Mark (2008) Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In The Shadow of Iran, London: International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), p 42.

[2] “Nuclear power in Saudi Arabia,” World Nuclear Association (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-o-s/saudi-arabia.aspx).

[3] For further details see ibidem.

[4] “Saudi Arabia – Nuclear,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, July 2016 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/saudi-arabia/nuclear/).

[5] Ibidem.

[6] Tirone, Jonathan, “Before Saudi Arabia goes nuclear, it may have to follow Iran’s lead,” Bloomberg, March 6, 2019 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-06/before-saudi-goes-nuclear-it-may-have-to-follow-iran-s-lead).

[7] Tirone, Jonathan, “First images of Saudi nuclear reactor show plant nearing finish,” Bloomberg, April 3, 2019 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-04-03/first-images-of-saudi-nuclear-reactor-show-plant-nearing-finish).

[8] Murphy, Aileen and M.V. Ramana, “The Trump administration is eager to sell nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia. But why?,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 16, 2019 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://thebulletin.org/2019/04/the-trump-administration-is-eager-to-sell-nuclear-reactors-to-saudi-arabia-but-why/).

[9] Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act (AEA) of 1954 establishes the conditions and outlines the process for major nuclear cooperation between the United States and other countries. In order for a country to enter into such an agreement with the United States, that country must commit to a set of nine nonproliferation criteria. As of January 15, 2019, the United States has entered into 26 nuclear cooperation agreements that govern nuclear cooperation with 49 countries, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Taiwan. The nine nonproliferation criteria for section 123 agreements are as follows: 1) Nuclear material and equipment transferred to the country must remain under safeguards in perpetuity; 2) Non-nuclear-weapon states partners must have full-scope IAEA safeguards, essentially covering all major nuclear facilities. 3) A guarantee that transferred nuclear material, equipment, and technology will not have any role in nuclear weapons development or any other military purpose, except in the case of cooperation with nuclear-weapon states. 4) In the event that a non-nuclear-weapon state partner detonates a nuclear device using nuclear material produced or violates an IAEA safeguards agreement, the United States has the right to demand the return of any transfers. 5) U.S. consent is required for any re-transfer of material or classified data. 6) Nuclear material transferred or produced as a result of the agreement is subject to adequate physical security. 7) U.S. prior consent rights to the enrichment or reprocessing of nuclear material obtained or produced as a result of the agreement. 8) Prior U.S. approval is required for highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium obtained or produced as a result of the agreement.  An agreement permitting enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) using U.S. provided material requires separate negotiation. 9) The above nonproliferation criteria apply to all nuclear material or nuclear facilities produced or constructed as a result of the agreement. Section 123 requires that the Department of State submit a Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement (NPAS) explaining how the nuclear cooperation agreement meets these nonproliferation conditions. Congress has a total of 90 days in continuous session to consider the agreement, after which it automatically becomes law unless Congress adopts a joint resolution opposing it. (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/AEASection123).

[10] U.S. House of Representatives, “Whistleblowers Raise Grave Concerns with Trump Administration’s Efforts to Transfer Sensitive Nuclear Technology to Saudi Arabia,” Interim Staff Report, February 2019 (Retrievable at https://oversight.house.gov/sites/democrats.oversight.house.gov/files/Trump%20Saudi%20Nuclear%20Report%20-%202-19-2019.pdf Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[11] Lister, Tim and Tamara Qiblawi, “Saudi nuclear program accelerates, raising tensions in a volatile region,” CNN, April 7, 2019 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/06/middleeast/saudi-arabia-nuclear-reactor-iran-tensions-intl/index.html).

[12] “Congressman Brad Sherman Questions Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,” YouTube Video, Published on March 27, 2019 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9HTNMN9irk).

[13] Bagli, Charles V. and Kate Kelly, “Deal gives Kushners cash infusion on 666 Fifth Avenue,” The New York Times, August 3, 2018 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/03/nyregion/kushners-building-fifth-avenue-brookfield-lease.html).

[14] Morning, Joe, “Flynn pushed to share nuclear tech with Saudi Arabia: Report,” MSNBC, February 20, 2019 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/watch/flynn-pushed-to-share-nuclear-tech-with-saudi-arabia-report-1445329987612). See also Colman, Zac, “House report bare White House feud over Saudi Arabia nuclear push,” Politico, February 19, 2019 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.politico.com/story/2019/02/19/michael-flynn-saudi-arabia-1174531).

[15] Reuters, “Trump’s friend tried to profit from Middle East nuclear deal, lawmakers say,” The Guardian, July 29, 2010 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jul/29/tom-barrack-saudi-arabia-nuclear-deal-envoy).

[16] https://www.iaea.org/topics/safeguards-legal-framework/more-on-safeguards-agreements (Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[17] https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/status-sg-agreements-comprehensive.pdf (Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[18] https://www.iaea.org/topics/safeguards-legal-framework/more-on-safeguards-agreements (Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[19] Tirone, Jonathan, “Before Saudi Arabia goes nuclear, it may have to follow Iran’s lead,” Bloomberg, March 6, 2019 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-06/before-saudi-goes-nuclear-it-may-have-to-follow-iran-s-lead). See also Tandon, Shaun, “IAEA demands safeguards from Saudi Arabia on first nuclear reactor,” The Times Of Israel, April 6, 2019 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.timesofisrael.com/iaea-asks-saudis-for-safeguards-on-first-nuclear-reactor/).

[20] Morello, Carol, “Iran crisis looms over Pompeo’s trip to Middle East, Asia,” The Washington Post, June 23, 2019 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/pompeo-confronts-dual-crises-as-he-begins-trip-to-middle-east-asia/2019/06/23/c77180d0-95db-11e9-8d0a-5edd7e2025b1_story.html?noredirect=on).

[21] U.S. House of Representatives – Committee on Foreign Affairs, “Engel floor remarks on arms sales resolution of disapproval,” Press release, July 17, 2019 (Accessed September 12, 2019 https://foreignaffairs.house.gov/press-releases?ID=6B678239-8B0B-43E0-8EC2-98AA4535ECC7).

[22] S.J.Res.36 – A joint resolution providing for congressional disapproval of the proposed transfer to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Kingdom of Spain, and the Italian Republic of certain defense articles and services.116th Congress (2019-2020) (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-joint-resolution/36).

[23] Borger, Julian, “To import nuclear fuel, Saudi Arabia must agree to inspections – IAEA Chief, The Guardian, April 5, 2019 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/05/to-import-nuclear-fuel-saudi-arabia-must-agree-to-inspections-iaea-chief).