The Saudi Nuclear Program: Here's What Should Worry Israel and Trump

Riyadh says it has the right to enrich uranium just as the Iranians have been awarded, while Israel, which is pressuring Trump to leave the Iran deal, may find itself facing two nuclear powers

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a chart of military hardware sales as he welcomes Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 20, 2018
\ JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

The short video was posted on social media in fluent Hebrew. “Several Israeli journalists incited Bibi, or Benjamin Netanyahu, against Saudi Arabia and said there’s a Saudi nuclear threat. And I say to you, the Jewish people: Has Saudi Arabia ever threatened its neighbors? The answer is no. Does Saudi Arabia have aspirations to expand in the region? The answer is no. Read the news carefully, people of Israel. Thanks and see you next time.”

The speaker was Loay al-Shareef, a Saudi television host who has close ties with the royal house.

This public relations campaign didn’t impress the Israeli government or the U.S. Congress. They began their own campaign to prevent the Trump administration from letting American companies build nuclear reactors for electricity generation in Saudi Arabia. The fear is that this technology may  later be used as the foundation to produce nuclear weapons.

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These fears need no further proof. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said unequivocally that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will too. In a coddling interview with CBS, he said his country only wanted equal rights. In other words, if Washington adheres to the 2015 agreement with Iran, which lets Tehran enrich uranium to a low level, Saudi Arabia deserves that right too.

The Saudis, as opposed to Iran, have their own uranium and want to enrich it. This is the heart of the disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem on one side and Riyadh on the other. According to Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954, Congress has the right to reject any transfer of nuclear technology, materials or equipment to another country – and in doing so prevent uranium enrichment by that country.

In 2009, an agreement was signed with the United Arab Emirates for the construction of nuclear reactors based on this section of the law, but Netanyahu doesn’t consider these restrictions adequate. This month, the prime minister shared his opinion on the matter with members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and some of the senators agreed with the Israeli view.

In comparison, U.S. President Donald Trump is pushing to approve construction of the reactors because of the expected profits for American companies including Westinghouse Electric, whose proposal has a good chance of being chosen by the Saudis. Moreover, Trump owes the Saudis, who a few months ago signed a $35 billion agreement to buy American weapons.

Pakistan, Russia and China

Saudi Arabia declared its intention to build nuclear reactors for “peaceful purposes” – in other words for research and generating electricity – as part of the crown prince’s Saudi Vision 2030 program. The explanation is based on the need to diversify the kingdom’s energy sources and reduce its dependence on oil, as well as preparation for the day when the oil and natural gas run out – in part because of Saudi Arabia’s constant growth in electricity demand.

The plan includes 16 nuclear reactors, with two to be built in the first stage. Each reactor would produce 12,000 to 16,000 megawatts of power. The opponents of the project say Saudi Arabia, which holds the world’s second largest oil reserves, has no need for nuclear power. In addition, the global trend is to move from nuclear power to renewable energy such as wind and solar power, which are both abundantly available in Saudi Arabia. Either way, the crown prince’s statements make this argument rather irrelevant.

Whether Saudi Arabia is serious about its nuclear power plans or not, the nuclear-deterrence equation it has presented puts Washington in a difficult dilemma. If the Americans refuse to sell the Saudis nuclear technology, it can turn to other countries such as Pakistan, with which it has excellent relations, Russia or China. They all have no problem selling nuclear technology to the Saudis – even beyond that needed for civilian purposes.

To strengthen this part of the Saudi argument, Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir has said his country has discussed the construction of the nuclear reactors with at least 10 countries and has even conducted advanced negotiations with China. Under such a scenario, the United States would not be allowed to get its foot in the door of the Saudi nuclear industry, and Russia or China would become strategic allies of the kingdom, say U.S. officials. And this is without mentioning the huge profits the nuclear deal would bring in.

As far as the United States is concerned, an even larger danger lies in wait because – as opposed to Iran – the Saudis have no knowledge or experts of their own to build such reactors or make nuclear weapons, so whichever of the powers wins the bidding for the project, it will be happy to have to operate and maintain the reactors.

An example of such a case is the reactors Russia will finance, build and operate in Egypt in cooperation with Egyptian engineers, or the reactor that will soon be launched in Turkey with Russian President Vladimir Putin in attendance. But completely different than Turkey or Egypt, which have made very clear they have no aspirations for nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia hasn't ruled this out.

This possibility greatly worries Israel, which has worked intensively to convince Trump and members of Congress that although Saudi Arabia may be considered a close friend of Washington at the moment, the kingdom is unstable and radical Islamist movements freely operate there. Also, the construction of nuclear reactors would train a generation of Saudi engineers and other nuclear experts who would be able to develop a military nuclear program in the future.

Saudi Arabia, which hired the expensive services of three top-tier American lobbying firms, will explain in response that if it wanted nuclear weapons it could just buy them and doesn’t need to train its own experts. The U.S. State Department knows this claim quite well and has presented it to Trump as a reason to agree to the sale of American nuclear technology to the Saudis – and in doing so require them to meet strict American supervision.

Known unknowns

Until the balance of nuclear deterrence between Saudi Arabia and Iran comes about, if it ever does, the United States will have to reach an agreement with the Saudis not just over uranium enrichment. Another issue that will require Trump to provide answers to Congress is the supervision of the Saudi reactors.

For now, the model for the oversight of the Iranian nuclear deal has proved itself – at least according to the International Atomic Energy Agency – and could serve as a basis for any agreement with Saudi Arabia.

But countries can progress to dangerous stages in nuclear weapons development without UN inspectors or intelligence agencies detecting it. (Or the other way around; for example, the IAEA asked to tighten its supervision of an Iraqi nuclear program that no longer existed.) For example, there’s a lack of oversight over the nuclear programs of Pakistan, India, North Korea and Israel, which are not signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and don’t forget the Israeli intelligence failure in identifying the Syrian nuclear reactor so late.

Saudi Arabia, which has not signed the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which includes safeguards for much stricter supervision than the original treaty did, will not find it hard to move on from civilian nuclear energy to military use while staying below the international radar.

The question is whether a battle of honor and prestige will break out over the Saudi demands and whether the United States will be forced to say yes in order to preserve its good relations between with Riyadh, or whether Saudi Arabia will suffice with a more modest alternative such as a sophisticated defense pact with Washington and a U.S. commitment to protect the kingdom from any threat, Iranian or otherwise. The crown prince is now visiting the United States on a three-week trip, which will end around the time Trump will have to decide on the Iran agreement.

The paradox lies in the Saudi opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal. Ostensibly, the kingdom, which says deterring Iran is a weighty justification for its own nuclear needs, should support the Iran agreement and try to convince Tehran not to abandon it. The deal is supposed to neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat and give the Saudis time to develop their own program without the risk of a regional war that could turn into an international conflagration.

After failing in Yemen and suffering serious defeats in Syria, the Saudis can’t allow themselves another such war where they’ll be dependent on Washington’s willingness to do the dirty work.

Israel, which has been pressing Trump to leave the Iranian deal, or at least make changes that Iran would be unlikely to agree to, may find itself facing two nuclear powers instead of one: Iran, which has declared that it will restart its nuclear program if the agreement is violated, and Saudi Arabia, which would want to acquire nuclear weapons too as a deterrent against an Iran freed from the bonds of its nuclear agreement.