The United States invaded and destroyed Iraq in 2003 on the false ground that Saddam Hussein secretly nurtured a nuclear program, but twenty-five years later, Washington is actively discussing how to cater to Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions. It is a sign of our times that the nuclear genie is out of the Saudi bottle and the US may have to get used to the idea.
Saudi Arabia has opened bids from foreign companies to build two nuclear reactors. Riyadh wants eventually to install up to 17.6 gigawatts of atomic capacity by 2032 – or up to 17 reactors. Tens of billions of dollars worth business is involved. Companies from the US, France, Russia, China and South Korea have shown interest – including Westinghouse.
There is pressure on the Trump administration to restart talks with Riyadh on a civil nuclear cooperation pact so that Westinghouse can pick up the lucrative business. The nuclear commerce with Saudi Arabia fits in with President Trump’s America First, as it could create thousands of jobs in the US economy.
But there is a serious catch. The Saudis will not accept any restrictions on uranium enrichment technology. Washington’s policy, on the other hand, is to sign a peaceful nuclear cooperation pact – known as a 123 agreement – that blocks steps in fuel production with potential bomb-making uses. Now, Riyadh maintains that it is not interested in diverting nuclear technology to military use, but it wants nonetheless to tap its own uranium resources for “self-sufficiency in producing nuclear fuel”. Indeed, Saudis have a point here. It is Saudi Arabia’s prerogative to have access to nuclear enrichment technology – like any NPT member country.
But then, Saudi Arabia happens to be a Muslim country in the Middle East and the West so far ensured that there is nothing like an “islamic bomb”. What happens if some day, a gust of Arab Spring blows through the Arabian Peninsula and an authentic Islamic regime takes shape there? Again, the Saudis already have a past history of funding Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapon program. The two countries are close allies. General Raheel Sharif, former Pakistani army chief, heads the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance, which was formed last year. Pakistan’s present army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa is frequently in and out of Saudi Arabia. In February, following Bajwa’s last hushed visit, Pakistan announced the deployment of a few thousand troops to Saudi Arabia under a bilateral security cooperation agreement for unspecified purposes.
Conceivably, Saudis intend to develop nuclear weapons some day. The Saudi compulsions are similar to Pakistan’s – nuclear weapons provide deterrent capability. Lest it be forgotten, Saudi Arabia already has a “delivery system” – missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Its armed forces even have a designated Saudi Strategic Missile Force, which handles long-range missiles. Actually, these missiles don’t make sense unless they’re armed with nuclear weapons. What makes all this a combustible mix is that the present Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a hot head, as the bloody war in Yemen testifies. The rift with Qatar underscores that MbS is bent on establishing Saudi hegemony in the region.
Logically speaking, the US could offer to Saudi Arabia something like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement of July 2015 that restricts Iran’s nuclear program. The Saudis cannot complain because they had previously complained that the JCPOA was a generous deal for Iran – except that it means:
- No indigenous reprocessing, with all spent reactor fuel to be shipped out of the country;
- Severe restrictions on any uranium enrichment, in terms of both the level of enrichment and the amount of material enriched;
- A highly intrusive IAEA inspection regime, in which international inspectors have continual and full access to nuclear facilities, including the right to inspect military bases or other places if they had any reason to suspect nuclear-related activities.
Of course, it entails the Trump administration admitting that JCPOA was a brilliant achievement in nuclear non-proliferation. That will be not only a bitter pill to swallow for President Trump but his (and Israel’s) entire strategy to reimpose sanctions against Iran would unravel.
The alternative will be to give Saudi Arabia a free hand to acquire mastery over the nuclear fuel cycle but the US Congress is almost certain to shoot it down. On the other hand, if the US and Saudi Arabia cannot agree on a 123 agreement, Westinghouse loses the multi-billion dollar business. Russia’s Rosatem has already sought a contract to construct 2 nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia. In the prevailing new Cold War climate with the Trump administration castigating Russia as a “revisionist power” and an “existentialist threat”, a coordinated effort by the international community to circumscribe Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions (on the lines that the Obama administration could mobilise) is too much to expect today. Which, in turn, creates space for Saudi Arabia to outmaneuver the Trump administration. Riyadh is aware of it. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
This is going to be one hell of a trapeze act for the Trump administration. If Trump destroys the JCPOA in these circumstances, and Iran retaliates by resuming uranium reprocessing, this becomes an entirely new ball game. Other Middle Eastern countries are watching – Turkey and Egypt, in particular. And they would be wondering, ‘If Saudi Arabia can have reprocessing technology, why not us?’ Israel’s “nuclear superiority” is steadily getting eroded, too. Read a fascinating piece Coming soon – a Nuclear Middle East.
Source: Indian Punchline
PS.: Given Trump’s has said before Saudi Arabia getting nuclear weapons wouldn’t be a big deal it’s actually entirely possible he will give the go-ahead. Lobe Log:
Many in the administration, including the president, don’t think it would be so bad if Saudi Arabia got the bomb. It is not the spread of nuclear weapons they worry about; it is the spread of nuclear weapons to “bad guys.”
Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in a March 2016 interview that it didn’t matter if Saudi Arabia got nuclear weapons because “it was going to happen anyway.” Cooper asked him, “So if you said, Japan, you get nuclear weapons, South Korea, you as well, and Saudi Arabia says we want them, too?”
“Can I be honest with you?” asks Trump, “It’s going to happen anyway. It’s going to happen anyway. It’s only a question of time. They’re going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely. But you have so many countries already, China, Pakistan, you have so many countries, Russia, you have so many countries right now that have them.”
And then he cuts to the chase: “Now, wouldn’t you rather in a certain sense have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?”