Saudi Arabia and the Nuclear Temptation

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by Thomas W. Lippman

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, seems to have gotten what he wanted from his long glad-handing tour through the United States and several European capitals. He met President Trump and brand-name business tycoons and potential investors, and took home some actual deals, including a commitment by the giant French oil company Total to invest billions in a new petrochemical complex.

What he should have gotten but did not were stern lectures excoriating his glib, casual attitude about acquiring or developing nuclear weapons. Asked by Norah O’Donnell of CBS what Saudi Arabia would do if Iran obtained such weapons, he replied, “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” 

Either the young prince was badly briefed or his knowledge of history and international security affairs is thin. He does not seem to realize that his grand plans for modernizing his country and restructuring its economy, which are based on full integration into the global industrial and financial system, would fall apart if the United States and its allies thought that Saudi Arabia was pursuing nuclear arms. He could forget those big investments and deals, and most of his country’s sources of military equipment and training would dry up. The damage to his country that pursuit of nuclear weapons would cause would far outweigh any conceivable strategic gain. Does he not know why Iran was subjected to crippling economic sanctions for all those years before the multinational agreement of 2016 curtailed its nuclear program? Does he not know why North Korea is a pariah state?

Saudi Arabia is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which prohibits signatories other than the five recognized nuclear powers from acquiring or developing a nuclear arsenal. Israel, India, and Pakistan have gotten away with their weapons programs because they are not parties to the NPT and thus have no legal obligation to abide by its terms. Even so, Pakistan did not escape the wrath of the U.S. Congress when it tested nuclear weapons in the 1990s, as bipartisan majorities enacted laws that authorized Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to impose stiff sanctions, which they did.  

Saudi Arabia, which has few friends in Congress, would be unlikely to escape the same fate. The kingdom cannot afford to become an international outlaw, like North Korea, or to see its oil sales curtailed and its access to global financial markets cut off, like Iran. That would put an end to the grand development plan the prince has styled “Vision 2030.” 

The kingdom, like any other NPT state, is authorized to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and in fact President George W. Bush promised to help it do so. There is not necessarily any connection between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons—many countries have one without the other. But given the prince’s comments, his country’s plans to develop nuclear power are bound to attract scrutiny and inspire suspicion, not only in Congress but in Israel.

When the Kingdom first aroused suspicion on this subject in 1988 by secretly acquiring nuclear-capable missiles from China, senior U.S. officials warned the Saudis that they had added the country to Israel’s target list. Bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress promptly passed resolutions opposing the sale of support equipment for the kingdom’s AWACS spy planes, and the White House postponed a new round of weapons sales. The United States calmed down only when Saudi Arabia agreed to sign the NPT, which it had previously refused to do because Israel had not. 

The crown prince, who is 32 years old, is not the first senior member of the ruling family to say that Saudi Arabia would match whatever weaponry Iran acquired. Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, has been saying that for years. But Prince Turki was out of  government when he took that position. Prince Mohammed, who is destined to become king within a few years when his father passes from the scene, has the authority to make what would amount to a catastrophic blunder. 

Unfortunately, there do not appear to be many voices inside Saudi Arabia urging caution or restraint on this front. At one recent private gathering, Saudis with years of experience in foreign affairs and security policy seemed quite blasé about it. Their attitude was that the crown prince was only stating the obvious when he made his comments to O’Donnell: Iran is dangerous, hostile, and threatening, and would only become more so if it had nuclear weapons and Saudi Arabia did not. If they understood the gravity of the consequences for the kingdom if it went down that road, they showed no sign of it.

Prince Mohammed was perhaps shooting from the hip in his response to O’Donnell, emulating his buddy Donald Trump, rather than articulating a serious policy decision. A clue to the his true intentions will be found in the outcome of Saudi Arabia’s negotiations with the United States over a nuclear cooperation agreement, which would set the terms by which U.S. companies could sell nuclear equipment or technology to the kingdom. 

According to many reports, the Saudis are asking that a bilateral deal, known as a “123 Agreement” for the section of the law that requires it, permit them to control both ends of the nuclear fuel cycle. In that way, they could enrich their own uranium and reprocess fuel once it is used up to extract the plutonium generated by the chain reaction. An existing agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia’s neighbor Abu Dhabi permits neither. That agreement is known in the industry as the “gold standard.” But Saudi Arabia does not want to accept the “Abu Dhabi model” because the international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program does not prohibit enrichment. 

Enriched uranium fuel for nuclear reactors is plentiful in world markets, but Prince Mohammed has said that Saudi Arabia wants to take advantage of its own domestic resources by doing its own enrichment. Even if there is a valid argument to be made for enrichment, however, the Saudis cannot make a legitimate argument for reprocessing to capture plutonium, which has limited civilian uses but is primarily a fuel for nuclear weapons. 

Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA), who has long opposed nuclear energy in any form, can be expected to lead congressional opposition to a 123 agreement that allows reprocessing. “Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has confirmed what many have long suspected—nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia is about more than just electrical power, it’s about geopolitical power,” Markey said in a statement last month. “The United States must not compromise on nonproliferation standards in any 123 agreement it concludes with Saudi Arabia.” He said Saudi Arabia is interested more in “megatons than megawatts.” 

The Saudis could obtain civilian nuclear power reactors from other countries—South Korea provides those in Abu Dhabi—and it would not need an agreement with the United States to do that. But if it rejects a 123 agreement because it insists on retaining the right to reprocess, it will be sending an unmistakable and ill-advised signal.

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Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Washingtonpost.com. Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.

3 Comments

  1. In addition to all his other exceptional accomplishments, Tom was my journalism professor at the American University in Cairo Egypt in 1975-6. Nobody in the region has more depth of vision. Tom is exactly right that Going Nuclear is not in Saudi’s interests. But 2 things to worry – they know, as Tom makes clear, that others have ignored the sanctions and survived, to then go forward as a nuclear power – Pakistan is the best example. They also know that while they may not wish to engage in a nuclear arms race, if Iran does go visibly nuclear, they will have no alternative but to seek to establish a new Middle East version of mutually assured destruction deterrence. My question for Tom is, what will Israel do if Iran goes nuclear? Maybe Saudi does not need worry that Iran will be free to intimidate the region.

  2. Thomas Lippman writes, “The Saudis could obtain civilian nuclear power reactors from other countries—South Korea provides those in Abu Dhabi—and it would not need an agreement with the United States to do that.” Correct. Saudi has a request for bids out for nuclear power plants and five are expected to bid. None will be U.S., as there is no current U.S. nuclear power plant manufacturer. Trump has supposedly encouraged MbS to buy from Westinghouse – showing how much he knows about that. Westinghouse was owned by Toshiba, which sold it at the beginning of the year to a Canadian hedge fund, after it went bankrupt because of overruns on U.S. nuclear plants in construction. The Canadian firm’s website says that Westinghouse, a large and viable outfit, should concentrate on the profitable parts of nuclear business, which are fuel supply, services and decommissioning of old plants. So, Saudi Arabia will probably start down the long path to becoming a country with nuclear power, in cooperation with Korea, or Russia or France. If some day Saudi wants to leave the NPT and acquire nuclear weapons because of a perceived existential threat from Iran, its cooperation with Pakistan would be the fastest way to go.

  3. The national power no longer could be defined by nuclear detterance, even the conventional arms detterance is endangered! The USSR is the viable case. An knowledge based and evolved society is the ultimate power that seems far in destination or reach of KSA. Money couldn’t essentially buy such kind of power.

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