Saudi Arabia wants to produce uranium enrichment equipment from the United States, without any restrictions or oversight, while stating that 'all options are on the table'. Is Saudi Arabia going nuclear only a matter of time?
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman once warned, “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” in an interview with CBS.
But Congressman Brad Sherman, a senior member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, warns against placing trust in Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
“A country that can’t be trusted with a bone saw shouldn’t be trusted with nuclear weapons,” he said.
Prince Mohammad bin Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud, Saudi Arabian ambassador to the UK, stated that for years the Kingdom maintained the late King Fahd’s policy not to pursue nuclear weapons development.
“Then it became known that Iran was pursuing a policy that could be shifted to a weapons-of-mass-destruction programme,” he commented in an interview with The Daily Telegraph.
“This has changed the whole outlook in the region.”
He went on to add, however, that if Iran pursued a nuclear bomb, “all options will be on the table for Saudi Arabia.”
Well before the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the US intelligence community was attempting to ascertain whether the young prince would renew Saudi Arabia’s push for nuclear bombs.
A deal in the making
A report by the New York Times reveals that the young crown prince was in negotiations with the US Departments of Energy and State to try and convince the United States to sell Saudi Arabia nuclear power plant designs.
Saudi Arabia plans to spend an estimated $80 billion to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next 25 years.
It comes with a catch, however: Saudi Arabia is not willing to accept US restrictions on its nuclear programme.
Even though it’s cheaper for Saudi Arabia to buy nuclear fuel from abroad, the crown prince insists on developing the kingdom’s capacity for nuclear enrichment.
US sales of American nuclear material or equipment are typically governed by a 123 Agreement, which sets severe restrictions on how far the uranium can be enriched.
Moreover, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman wants to purchase equipment for enriching uranium within Saudi Arabia.
Radioactive fuel accounts for only a small portion of a nuclear plant’s cost. On the other hand, enrichment equipment costs billions.
“It doesn’t make sense,” says Daryl G. Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, a private nonprofit group in an interview with the Washington Post.
“Building an indigenous uranium enrichment and reprocessing program for spent fuel is incredibly costly, in the tens of billions of dollars.”
Comparing the oversupply of uranium, he adds, “there’s no economic rationale” for a Saudi program.
This has given rise to concerns that a covert enrichment program is underway, rooted in Crown Prince Salman’s previous statements on developing a nuclear bomb.
This mirrors the same concerns that led to sanctions against Iran.
Chiefly, that due to the difficulty of completely monitoring enrichment, some radioactive fuel could be secretly enriched further than nuclear power plant grade material, and into weapons-grade material uranium and plutonium.
What does the future hold?
If a nuclear deal is reached, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to accept the same terms ratified by the Iranian nuclear deal.
The Iranian nuclear deal, which the US would later end, imposed severe restrictions on uranium enrichment and required the destruction of reactors that could possibly produce weapons-grade nuclear material. It also allowed for routine international monitoring and inspections of any facility, whether declared or undeclared.
The Iranian nuclear deal also did not allow for any reactor sales or assistance in developing the program, with the threat of punishing sanctions in case of a violation.
Saudi Arabia has reportedly refused such terms.
Few details of the ongoing negotiations have been released. The New York Times reports that the deal includes a 10-15-year limit on Saudi fuel production, a marked departure from US standards on preventing nuclear non-proliferation.
This raises alarm bells throughout the region, given that Saudi Arabia’s actions and statements have not established a record assuring United States lawmakers that they would not pursue nuclear weapons.
According to western intelligence sources speaking under Chatham house rules, Saudi Arabia paid for nearly 60 percent of the Pakistani nuclear program, with the explicit option of being able to purchase a small nuclear arsenal from Pakistan if it wishes.
This would amount to fix or six nuclear warheads, compatible with Saudi Arabia’s existing stock of missiles.
Saudi Arabia is not strapped for choices, however, with a number of allies it could possibly procure nuclear capability from China or Pakistan.
Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, both China and Pakistan could supply Saudi Arabia with nuclear warheads based on Saudi Arabian soil, so long as they maintained control of the warheads.
Based on an analysis of centrifuge enrichment programs conducted by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, Saudi Arabia would be able to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium a year after setting up a nuclear plant, while perfecting its missile design in parallel.
Saudi Arabia is already well on the way to achieving this.
In the 1980’s, Saudi Arabian General Khalid bin Sultan al Saud was tasked with procuring Chinese medium-range ballistic missiles in secrecy, that were capable of utilising chemical, nuclear or biological warheads.
In 1999, Prince Sultan, then Defence Minister would go on to visit Kahuta Research Laboratories in Pakistan, where A.Q. Khan was enriching uranium and building variants of the North Korean Nodong missile.
By 2010, Prince Sultan would go on to open the Strategic Missile Force, with the clear goal of achieving parity with Iran in the region, and in reaction to turbulence in the region and the growing perception of Iranian encroachment.
To this end, Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center questions the Kingdom’s stability and the logic of enabling their nuclear program.
“How do we feel about the stability of the kingdom? The reactors are bolted to the ground for a minimum of 40 years and a maximum of 80 years. That’s enough for the whole world to change,” says the former Pentagon employee.
With the Trump administration’s focus on generating employment and maintaining ties with the Kingdom, negotiations between the two states may very well end in favour of Saudi Arabia; and the possibility of a Nuclear Middle East.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that nuclear analyst Adrian Drake works at the International Atomic Energy Agency. His quotes have been removed.