Following a contentious Munich Security Conference that saw the United States and its European Allies clash over a whole host of issues, the US Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette made clear that Washington will not allow Saudi Arabia to develop a nuclear bomb.
Saudi Arabia has refused to rule out weapons-grade uranium enrichment, saying the Kingdom may need to consider its own nuclear weapons programme in order to counter its arch-enemy, Iran’s, perceived nuclear ambitions and the Islamic Republic’s advanced nuclear research and enrichment capabilities.
The fear spreading throughout the region and in the halls of power in the West is that the Kingdom is looking to develop nuclear fuel, some of which could be diverted for a covert weapons project if Iran opted to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement that the US walked out on last year.
The Americans justified their quitting the deal after citing numerous instances where Iran continued to play a malevolent role Middle East’s affairs, particularly in the Yemeni and Syrian civil wars and Tehran’s continued support for the region’s two largest state-sponsored terrorist organisations – Hamas and Hezbollah.
Under the 2015 agreement, Iran maintains a small number of nuclear centrifuges though it has to ship 97% of its fuel out of the country. Buying ready-made nuclear fuel abroad would be cheaper for Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh is keen to match Iran’s nuclear capability. Saudi Arabia has its own plutonium deposits and nuclear technology research centres.
What worries most observers, including the Israelis, is that Saudi Arabia, a country with a Wahabbist majority, could lose control of the highly sensitive nuclear weapons technology, which could then fall into the hands of the dozens of Sunni terrorist organisations that the Kingdom has helped support and cultivate for years.
The US House and Senate could cancel any nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia although they would need an extended majority that can override President Donald J. Trump‘s veto power. Trump has not indicated that he intends to use his executive authority to cancel a nuclear deal with the Saudi, which could be worth more an estimated $80 billion in contracts depending on how many plants Saudi Arabia plans to build.
During negotiations with the Trump Administration last year, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad Prince Salman made clear the kingdom would not welcome inspections from the UN or the International Atomic Energy Agency. US Energy Secretary Rick Perry dodged a question by the US Congress in March 2018 when he was quizzed on whether the Trump administration would insist that Saudi Arabia needed to be officially banned from producing nuclear fuel.
Riyadh is still in the process of deciding which country they would contract to help develop its nuclear energy programme. At present, the US tops a shortlist that also includes Russia, China, and South Korea. Most of the world’s other nuclear-powered nations have refused to assist the Saudis to develop an energy programme following the murder of opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in October 2018.
The US has a longstanding policy that dates back to 1954 which bars any cooperation on nuclear energy, including plutonium enrichment, which could later be used for the development of a nuclear arsenal.
The Saudi Energy Ministry has repeatedly claimed that Riyadh’s programme would strictly be for civilian purposes and has said that it’s intention is to diversify Saudi Arabia’s energy sources. Those claims have come under scrutiny, however, as Saudi finances have been linked to Pakistan’s own nuclear arsenal.
This has deepened the concerns of the international community, most of whom worry that both Riyadh and Islamabad could work in tandem to develop a large nuclear arsenal that would equip the Sunni world with a nuclear deterrent to Iran’s goal of Shiite expansionism.