Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) recently warned that Riyadh would develop a nuclear bomb if Iran did. With the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the deal aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief — at imminent risk of collapse on May 12, MBS’s statements have sparked fears of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race.
– Congressional and Israeli opposition makes it unlikely that Saudi Arabia will develop a nuclear weapons program in the foreseeable future for fear of undermining its traditional and emerging security partnerships.
– Washington is likely to try to appease Riyadh’s concerns by offering the Saudis deepened security ties and a nuclear cooperation agreement which leaves open the potential for Riyadh’s civilian program to evolve into a military one.
TRUMP’S GREEN LIGHT?
Saudi Arabia’s purported nuclear ambitions have surfaced amidst the backdrop of rising regional tensions with Iran. Riyadh has been alarmed at Tehran’s recent success in expanding its influence in Iraq, Syria and closer to home in Yemen. The Saudis fear that a nuclear-armed Iran will further and indeed dramatically shift the regional balance in favour of its revolutionary rival.
Somewhat counterintuitively, Saudi Arabia’s concerns were not eased by the implementation of the JCPOA in 2015, which put a hold on Iran’s semi-developed nuclear weapons program. Riyadh believes that the deal will not stop Iran from eventually acquiring nuclear weapons, as the key provisions restricting Iran’s program contain ‘sunset clauses’ which eventually expire. The nuclear deal also does not comprehensively address lran’s ability to develop and test ballistic missiles, the essential delivery system for nuclear weapons.
In any case, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons may come sooner rather than later. For similar reasons to Riyadh, President Donald Trump is vehemently opposed to the JCPOA. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also pushed Trump by quite publicly and sensationally railing against the deal. The recent appointments of the hawkish Mike Pompeo and John Bolton as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor respectively have only heightened fears that Trump will refuse to extend the sanctions waiver on Iran when the May 12 deadline arrives. If this occurs, there is a serious risk that the deal will collapse entirely. In such a scenario, Iran could plausibly respond by restarting their nuclear program — Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned as much, saying Iran is ready to resume nuclear enrichment at a much greater speed if the US walks away from the nuclear deal.
These fears pertaining to Iran are one of the reasons why Riyadh has publicly considered developing a nuclear program of its own — though domestic energy production is a notable justification too. Riyadh plans to build sixteen reactors at a cost of $80 billion over the next two decades, though lacks the technology to achieve this on its own and is considering offers from over ten different countries. As it stands, US firms are in the box seat to reap these highly lucrative contracts.
However, if the Saudis want to use US technology, they will have to sign a ‘123 deal’ pursuant to Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which empowers Congress to reject the transfer of nuclear technology abroad. Normally such a deal entails a commitment to maintaining a nuclear program for civilian purposes only by refraining from uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. Owing to Riyadh’s refusal to explicitly forgo uranium enrichment, a deal was never reached under the Obama administration.
Trump may prove to be less concerned with non-proliferation. In addition to stating during his candidacy that Riyadh should ‘absolutely’ get nuclear weapons, Trump has shown a general willingness to back MBS despite his contentious policies both at home and abroad. Given this and the huge payday that US firms would receive, it is not impossible to envisage that Trump would support a deal which allowed the Saudis to enrich uranium and process plutonium.
DANGEROUS GAMES AND COMPROMISES
On balance, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to develop a military nuclear program. Congress has the power to pass a joint-resolution which will stop any unfavourable 123 deal from becoming law. Currently, there appears to be bipartisan opposition to any deal which would allow Riyadh to start on the path to developing nuclear weapons by enriching uranium.
Reasons for this opposition are varied. Regional stability is a concern, as a Saudi nuclear program could catalyse a destabilising arms race between Riyadh and Tehran which, in a worst-case scenario, could spill into open nuclear warfare. Because Saudi’s civil nuclear program is only its infant stages, the prospect of an arms is decades away, though even the development phase would raise regional tensions. Furthermore, freed of the non-proliferation norm, US acceptance of a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia could prompt other allies to demand nuclear weapons capabilities of their own, threatening to create dangerous escalatory cycles in other high tension regions such as East Asia and Eastern European.
Israel is another factor which plays into Congress’s opposition. Despite warming (if unofficial) ties between the two countries, Tel Aviv is deeply opposed to Riyadh obtaining nuclear weapons or indeed having any kind of nuclear program. The House of Saud increasingly sees Israel as a strategic partner in its regional conflict with Iran, but Israel fears nuclear weapons could foreseeably be used by Islamist elements within the Kingdom who remain deeply opposed to the Zionist state. Accordingly, Israel has furiously lobbied the White House and Congress to refrain from transferring nuclear technology to Riyadh.
While Congress is highly likely to oppose any deal which could see Riyadh develop nuclear weapons, Trump could veto any joint blocking resolution, provided less than two-thirds of Congress is opposed to arming Riyadh. Although such a possibility is not inconceivable and could fit into part of Trump’s broader Iran strategy, allowing the Saudis the chance to develop nuclear weapons would deeply alienate Congress, Israel and the EU.
Even if the Saudis got the go-ahead through a presidential veto, it remains an open question whether they would actually proceed, as developing nuclear weapons could contribute to their own insecurity. An increasingly hostile Congress would be less favourable to approving arms deals with Saudi Arabia — it has already questioned its current deals due to the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, magnified by the Saudi-led intervention. Moreover, the Trump presidency will last no longer than 2024 while nuclear weapons will take decades to build. Worryingly for Riyadh, there is no certainty that the next president would continue to support Riyadh’s program, meaning a rupture in White House–Riyadh relations cannot be ruled out. Finally, developing nuclear weapons would undermine Saudi Arabia’s budding strategic partnership with Israel.
At the same time, knowing that Russia, China or Pakistan could assist a Saudi nuclear program instead — indeed this would be the most logical path for the Saudis to pursue nuclear weapons if a favourable 123 deal is not concluded — Congress will be reluctant to call the Saudis bluff. US industry would also be loath to miss out on such lucrative contracts. These circumstances make a compromise likely. One possible option would be for a 123 deal to temporarily ban the Saudis from enriching uranium, leaving the issue open for negotiations in the future. The US could also redouble its pledges to safeguard Riyadh’s security and combat any resurgent Iranian nuclear program. From Riyadh’s perceptive, these developments would hopefully be enough to deter Iran from restarting its program.
Should the Iran deal collapse, Iranian moves to renew its weapons programs could embolden Trump to force through a lenient 123 deal. However, the opposition of Congress and Israel would likely remain and Riyadh would still face the prospect of dealing with potentially hostile post-Trump administrations. In any case, it is far from certain that the imposition of US sanctions will lead Iran to automatically restart its program. Therefore, irrespective of whether Trump reimposes sanctions, it is unlikely that the Saudis will commence a nuclear weapons program anytime soon.
Henry is a Middle East and North Africa team editor and analyst. From Damascus to Tel Aviv he will keep you up to date with all the important developments in the region.