Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman dropped a bombshell when he said Saudi Arabia will develop nuclear weapons if Iran builds a nuclear bomb. Before this week, Saudi Arabia’s strategy was either based on not letting Iran develop nuclear weapons, via international negotiations and pressure, or depending on the international community – which we know is not reliable – to deter it.
Saudi policy has now changed. Prince Mohammed bin Salman chose CBS to announce the kingdom’s new policy before meeting with US President Donald Trump. His statements had tangible consequences in Washington whose stances are usually divided. The crown prince’s task to convince legislators in the Congress and the different political powers in Washington will be difficult.
Washington’s approval to let Saudi Arabia develop nuclear weapons is almost impossible especially that some countries, like Israel, oppose this. However, the prince linked this to Iran’s attempt to build its own nuclear weapons. This resembles the Pakistani scenario with India.
The new Saudi policy conveys to the Europeans and the Americans, particularly those who seem lenient towards Iran, that they must understand that Riyadh will not settle with any guarantees if Iran develops its nuclear weapons and that it will do the same within the context of balance of deterrence.
First of all, we must ask, is Saudi Arabia capable of building a nuclear bomb?
No one can confirm that. However, the kingdom does have scientific competencies. This year, it will set up projects related to reactors, factories and infrastructure to develop its nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes. What distinguishes Saudi Arabia from Iran here is that it has uranium in its desert. Therefore, the kingdom does not need to buy it, and it has actually adopted a plan to extract it for development projects that are part of Vision 2030.
The second question is how will Saudi Arabia confront international opposition and possible political risks?
I do not think Riyadh will take this step to develop nuclear weapons without the approval of the concerned superpowers which cannot ignore the fact that Iran targets Saudi Arabia and that the former has reached an advanced stage of readiness to build nuclear weapons. If Tehran decided to enrich uranium and resume its nuclear project for military purposes, the crown prince’s statement will thus be justified.
Those who oppose the crown prince are not just in Iran but also in Washington itself. US Senator Ed Markey, also member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, immediately responded to the prince’s statements and said: “Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has confirmed what many have long suspected—nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia is about more than just electrical power, it’s about geopolitical power,” adding: “The United States must not compromise on nonproliferation standards in any 123 agreement it concludes with Saudi Arabia.” Opponents have noted that Saudi Arabia refuses to sign the “gold standard” or the “123 agreement” which guarantees that it does not enrich uranium and does not reproduce plutonium.
It’s worth noting that a week before the crown prince kicked off his tour in the US, the kingdom announced that it approved its national policy of the atomic energy program and confirmed its commitment to international agreements and the principle of transparency while emphasizing the program aims to serve peaceful purposes. The prince’s recent statements ahead of his travel to Washington prepared everyone there to understand that keeping silent and being lenient with Iran, thus allowing it to produce nuclear weapons, will mean that Saudi Arabia will do the same and possess a nuclear bomb. His statements may be looked at from two angles. The first one is that Saudi Arabia does not intend to develop nuclear weapons if Iran commits not to, and the second one is that the prince is warning of being lenient with Tehran because he will thus develop nuclear weapons to defend his country and create “a balance of terror.”
Everyone takes Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s statements seriously. In addition to announcing its national policy of the atomic energy program, Saudi Arabia held talks with China around six months ago to establish a nuclear infrastructure for peaceful purposes. This will probably be among the topics he will address in Washington. Discussing these matters will not be easy due to all those skeptics who doubt Saudi Arabia’s aims and intentions. These skeptics have two choices, to either work seriously to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons – in this case Saudi Arabia and the world will not sense nuclear threats – or approve Saudi Arabia’s right of readiness to possess weapons like Iran’s. Iran is headed by an extremist fascist and religious regime which may use any nuclear weapons it builds to attack its rivals. Even if it does not directly use these weapons, it will exploit them to blackmail the region and the world and it will threaten to use them to achieve its expansive activities it’s currently endeavoring.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed.