The justification for a Saudi nuclear bomb
Saudi policy has changed now, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chose a US television channel, CBS, to announce the new policy before his meeting with US President Donald Trump. His statement has had repercussions in Washington, where positions are usually divided.
The crown prince will have a difficult task convincing the Congress and various political forces in Washington; indeed, it is almost impossible that Washington would agree that Saudi Arabia builds its own nuclear weapon, since many countries oppose this move, including Israel. But the prince has linked it to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, so here we are dealing with the Pakistani scenario with India.
The new Saudi policy will thus make Europeans, and Americans as well — especially those who are flexible toward Iran — realize that Riyadh will not be satisfied with any safeguards if Tehran develops nuclear weapons, and that the Kingdom will follow suit in order to maintain the balance of deterrence.
In this context, many issues deserve further discussion.
First, is Saudi Arabia capable of building a nuclear bomb?
No one can confirm this, but the Kingdom has some scientific talents and will set up projects this year to build reactors, laboratories and infrastructure aimed at developing nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes. Saudi Arabia enjoys an advantage over Iran because it has uranium in its desert, and hence does not need to buy it; and, in fact, has adopted a plan to extract it within Vision 2030.
Second, how would the Kingdom deal with international opposition, and what are the possible political hazards?
Well, I do not think that Riyadh would take such a step without the consent of the major powers concerned; but the latter cannot deny that Iran is targeting Saudi Arabia, and that it has reached an advanced stage of readiness to build a nuclear weapon. So if Tehran decides to resume enrichment and complete its nuclear program for military purposes, then Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s statement would be justified.
Those who oppose the prince are not to be found only in Iran; they are also there in Washington itself. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was quick to respond to Crown Prince Mohammed’s statement. He said: “The Saudi crown prince has emphasized what many have long suspected, that nuclear power in Saudi Arabia is more than electric power, it’s geopolitical power ... And the US should not waive the requirements of non-enrichment in any 123 agreement it may reach.” Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954 establishes an agreement for cooperation as a prerequisite for nuclear deals between the US and any other nation. Opponents point out that Saudi Arabia refuses to sign such a “123 agreement,” which would guarantee that it does not enrich uranium or reproduce plutonium.
Opponents of the crown prince’s stance have two options; either work hard to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, or accept that Saudi Arabia has the right to do so in self-defense.
In a series of related activities, it was significant that Saudi Arabia announced a week before the crown prince’s trip to Washington that it had approved its national nuclear energy program, reaffirming its commitment to international agreements, transparency and civil use. Crown Prince Mohammed’s statement was a reminder to everyone in Washington, on the eve of his trip, that silence on Iran and complacency toward it, which might allow it to produce a nuclear weapon, mean that Saudi Arabia would do the same. It would have a nuclear bomb.
Actually, we can read the statement from two angles; that the crown prince does not intend to develop a nuclear weapon if Iran abides by its nuclear abstention, or as a warning against leniency with Iran because the crown prince would develop nuclear weapons in defense of the country, and to achieve a balance of terror.
Everyone now takes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s talk seriously. In addition to his declaration of its nuclear policy, Saudi Arabia held talks with China about six months ago about building nuclear power infrastructure for civilian purposes. The same issue is expected to be part of the crown prince’s talks in Washington, but it will not be easy in the presence of those who are skeptical about Saudi intentions and goals.
However, those people have two options: Either to work hard to prevent Iran from building its nuclear arsenal, thus, allowing Saudi Arabia and the world to feel that there is no nuclear threat; or to recognize Saudi Arabia’s right to possess nuclear weapons just like Iran, which we know is headed by an extremist fascist and theocratic regime that would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons to eliminate its enemies. Furthermore, even if it does not use them directly, it would use these weapons to blackmail regional and international countries in order to achieve its expansionist goals that we know quite well.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and formereditor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.
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