In an unexpected turn of events, the sequence of dramatically different policies of the Obama and Trump Administrations has exacerbated the problem of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.
President Barack Obama’s major legacy in the nuclear realm was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which rolled back Iran’s nuclear program in the short-term, but allows it to build a full-scale civilian nuclear program 10-15 years from the deal’s implementation in 2016.
Then, in addition to Saudi concerns over the long-term effects of the JCPOA, President Donald Trump’s prioritization of renewing U.S. industry and his possibly unconventional attitude towards nuclear weapons have led Riyadh to seek civilian capabilities for enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) of uranium which can be repurposed to produce fissile material for the construction a nuclear weapon.
If Washington either fully accedes to Riyadh’s request for enrichment and reprocessing technology, or outright dismisses it, the results could not only undermine previous non-proliferation efforts in the region but might even provoke a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
The “Gold Standard” agreed upon between Washington and UAE in 2008 regarding the latter’s civilian nuclear program required the Emirates to renounce enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. Since that agreement was signed, the U.S. has offered those same terms to Saudi Arabia, which has consistently refused them and this brought the discussions of nuclear cooperation between the two countries to a deadlock. Now, instead of looking to the U.S.-Emirati agreement in order to determine the limitations of their nuclear capabilities, the Saudis are looking to the JCPOA and asking why Washington is willing to grant the hostile Iranian regime ENR rights while denying those same technologies for its allies in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in nuclear power is motivated by two concerns.
The official explanation provided by the Saudi Foreign Ministry is that the acquisition of nuclear power is an economic decision regarding the country’s energy production and consumption. And there is some merit to this claim: Saudi energy consumption is growing quickly and biting into the country’s oil profits at a time when it plans to use them (in particular the sale of 5% of Aramco) to fund its major economic reforms laid out in Vision 2030. Yet, that cannot be the primary reason that Riyadh is set on acquiring nuclear capabilities, as the Saudis have many alternatives to oil and nuclear power that are more efficient, including a variety different sources of renewable energy.
In fact, the major driving factor for Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear technology is its concern regarding its Iranian arch-rival’s ambitions to produce nuclear weapons. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia made no secret of his country’s interest in matching Iran when he said, “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.”
Riyadh is concerned that Iran’s successful breakout to the bomb would not only pose an existential threat to the kingdom if Iran should choose to use such weapons, but more generally it would embolden Tehran to become even more subversive in the region – compounding the pre-existing challenges to the stability of the House of Saud. Therefore, the Saudis seek to position themselves close enough to the bomb in order to deter the Iranians from breaking out by conveying the message that Tehran will derive little if any strategic advantage from going nuclear as Riyadh will soon follow.
But the Saudi interest in acquiring advanced nuclear capabilities presents significant dangers for both the broader international non-proliferation regime as well as Israel’s national security. First, given the internal and external challenges that the Saudi regime faces, possible future instability could lead to its nuclear assets falling into the wrong hands; one need look no further than Iran to find an example in which Washington’s nuclear cooperation with its then-ally more than 50 years ago continues to haunt both the U.S. and Israel today.
Second, in a region in constant flux, it is also possible that just as Saudi Arabia’s interests shifted to align with those of Israel, they could once more become misaligned, and Israel could then find itself with a U.S.-constructed security threat of existential proportions.
Third, beyond Saudi Arabia’s borders, a permissive U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation agreement could damage non-proliferation efforts in the region and may even cause a cascade that includes Turkey, Egypt and the Emirates, turning the Middle East into a “nuclear cauldron.”
For all of the above reasons, Washington cannot afford to accept an unlimited Saudi civilian nuclear program. However, at the same time, Washington would be ill-advised to dismiss Riyadh’s request out of hand; doing so would run the risk of pushing the Saudi nuclear contract into the hands of less responsible actors like Russia or China. That, in turn, would deny Washington critical oversight and leverage necessary to ensure that Riyadh is abiding by its commitments not to pursue nuclear weapons.
Yet, the importance of U.S. involvement in the Saudi nuclear program need not mean that it accept Riyadh’s terms. In fact, the U.S. has a broad range of tools at its disposal as the kingdom’s primary security guarantor; Washington should use both carrots and sticks, including promises to assist with resolving Saudi energy and security challenges as well as an explanation of the consequences for circumventing U.S. proliferation concerns by way of Russia or China, in order to strike an agreement with Saudi Arabia that is as close as possible to the Gold Standard. Doing so would be a show of leadership and deft diplomacy on Washington’s part, and everyone in the region would be safer because of it.
Co-author Ari Heistein is the special assistant to the director of the Institute for National Security Studies.