Failing to stop Iran’s nuclear effort could energise Saudi Arabia’s programme

October 22, 2017

US President Donald Trump, by announc­ing that he would not recertify the Iran nuclear deal, may have not only accel­erated Tehran’s plans for nuclear weapons but possibly those of Saudi Arabia, too.

Riyadh’s interest in acquiring or developing nuclear weapons is no secret. It’s also no secret why it wants them. They are meant to counteract any nuclear weapons capability developed by Iran.

Saudi Arabia is in the initial stages of developing a civilian nuclear industry that follows in­ternational protocols. The Saudis told the annual general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna that it was working with South Korea to develop reactors that could be built in remote areas.

Construction on the first two reactors could start as early as next year. Even if it success­fully launched a different kind of nuclear programme, it would take years to get to any kind of success.

That said, the Iran nuclear deal may have lessened the urgency. In March, the Washington-based Institute for Science and Interna­tional Security released “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Ambitions and Proliferation Risks,” a report that noted that the pressure on Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons had been delayed by the nuclear deal with Iran.

The report’s authors stated, optimistically if somewhat mistakenly: “A priority of the administration of Donald J. Trump is to prevent Saudi Arabia from developing such capabilities, in particular acquiring reprocessing and uranium enrichment facili­ties. The administration’s stated commitment to better enforce and strengthen the JCPOA [the acronym for the official name of the Iran deal] provides a sounder foundation to achieve that goal.”

Now all bets are off. If the US Congress is unable to find a way to resolve the problems Trump has identified with the deal and if Trump’s intention to kill the agreement is realised and Tehran resumes development of its nucle­ar arsenal, there is little doubt that Saudi Arabia will kick its nuclear programme into high gear.

The Institute for Science and International Security report noted that when the Iran deal ef­fectively ends, in about a decade, Saudi Arabia could be counted on to speed up development of its nuclear programmes. Accordingly, if the Iran deal ends even sooner, so does Saudi Arabia’s reason not to rush.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neigh­bours were never big fans of the nuclear pact with Iran because they believed Iran was determined to develop a nuclear weapon re­gardless of the time frame.

The countries of the Gulf Coop­eration Council would prefer that the United States force Iran to end its nuclear programme but if the United States fails to prevent nu­clear proliferation in Iran (or North Korea), the message is loud and clear: There is little reason not to go ahead with a nuclear weapons programme of your own.

One wildcard in this scenario is Pakistan. It’s hard to say how Pa­kistan would react if Saudi Arabia approached it about accelerating its nuclear programme. There has been nuclear talk between the two countries.

The relationship between Tehran and Islamabad, which had been growing closer, recently hit some bumps. In May, Iranian lead­ers accused Pakistan of harbouring Sunni Muslim terrorists within its borders and threatened to attack their hideouts. If Iran acts on its threats, would that encourage the Pakistanis to help the Saudis?

The other wildcard is Trump. His affinity towards the use of nuclear weapons has been writ­ten about often by the US media. During the 2016 US presidential campaign, Trump said it would be “OK” if South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia acquired nuclear weapons. It is not out of the ques­tion that Trump would help Saudi Arabia by either contributing components needed to develop nuclear weapons or by positioning American nuclear weapons within Saudi Arabia’s borders.

The latter is a bit dicier in that Riyadh is reluctant to allow US military personnel to be stationed in Saudi Arabia. It depends on the threat from Iran and how Saudi Arabia views the urgency of the situation. Let’s not forget Israel, which has long billed itself as America’s greatest ally in the region, and how it might react if the United States helped create another Muslim nuclear nation.

If the situation is not handled thoughtfully and diplomatically, it could metastasise. The United States has long been the champion of non-proliferation but under Trump it could start moving in the other direction.

In the end, Trump’s desire to destroy — out of pure spite — any­thing created by his predecessor could result in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.