Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, Prince Mamdooh Bin Saud Thinyyan Bin Saud and IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi pictured during a summit on nuclear energy, hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Belgian presidency of the Council of the European Union, Thursday 21 March 2024 in Brussels.

Will Saudi Arabia Acquire Nuclear Weapons?

The negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia faced hurdles due to Saudi Arabia’s demand for access to civilian nuclear technology, creating a major sticking point in the peace agreement just before Hamas’s attack on Israel. Despite efforts by the Biden administration, the likelihood of an agreement remains low amid the ongoing conflict. The war in Gaza has stirred public outrage in the Arab world, complicating meaningful peace talks. These stalled negotiations hold potential leverage in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, with the chance to influence Israeli concessions on Palestinian statehood and facilitate a Gaza cease-fire.

In the context of stability post the Gaza conflict, Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program emerges as a crucial factor. The U.S., if considering Saudi normalization as an incentive for Israeli policy changes, must address Riyadh’s demands for civilian nuclear cooperation and defense needs. This dynamic could significantly affect regional security, especially if Saudi Arabia shifts towards military nuclearization. Despite current focus on civilian nuclear reactors overseen by the IAEA, concerns exist about potential weaponization. Saudi Arabia’s involvement in projects with Chinese assistance further complicates the situation. Balancing support for Saudi Arabia’s nuclear goals while preventing proliferation is key for the U.S. to navigate carefully without jeopardizing Saudi’s support for normalization with Israel or triggering a regional arms race.

Fighting fire against fire

Saudi Arabia’s potential pursuit of nuclear weapons could be prompted by the need to bolster national security, deter threats, and elevate its geopolitical status. The primary motivation behind this pursuit is likely rooted in the regional competition with Iran. Iran’s advancements towards nuclear weapons capability, combined with its historical civilian nuclear program, create concerns about the possibility of Iran possessing nuclear arms. Despite Iran’s current restraint in weaponizing its nuclear program, the risk remains high, especially given escalating tensions in the region and its alliances with nuclear powers like Russia.

The looming prospect of Iran attaining nuclear weapons capability swiftly, alongside uncertainties about its future intentions, raises alarms for Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has indicated that Saudi Arabia would feel compelled to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran succeeds in its nuclear pursuits. This decision is driven by fears of Iran’s potential to support militant groups and leverage nuclear arms for protection against military responses. Additionally, Saudi Arabia’s interest in nuclear weapons may also stem from a desire to match Iran’s perceived prestige and enhance its influence in the region. These complex dynamics highlight the intricate interplay of regional power shifts and security concerns that could reshape the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape. Global stakeholders, particularly the United States, must delicately manage these escalating tensions to prevent a nuclear arms race and uphold regional stability.

Saudi Arabia
Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi and Saudi Arabia’s Chief Executive Officer of King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy Prince Mamdouh bin Saud bin Thunayan Al Saud attend the IAEA Nuclear Energy Summit in Brussels, Belgium, March 21, 2024. REUTERS/Yves Herman/ File photo

SAUDI ARABIA AS IT IS

It is crucial for the United States to proactively limit Saudi Arabia’s potential to develop nuclear weapons. Past delays, like the human rights concerns that stalled a 123 Agreement with the UAE in 2009, emphasize the scrutiny any agreement with Saudi Arabia would face. However, considerations regarding proliferation in the Middle East should take precedence.

As an alternative to Saudi enrichment, Washington could offer a secure supply of enriched uranium for Saudi reactors, negating the necessity for domestic enrichment facilities. This approach could involve a ban on Saudi enrichment as part of bilateral defense cooperation, potentially overseen by U.S. personnel with remote shutdown capabilities to prevent unauthorized use. Managing Saudi nuclear ambitions requires a nuanced strategy that aligns with U.S. standards to dissuade Saudi Arabia from seeking support from other countries for its nuclear program.

The U.S. must prioritize managing the Iranian nuclear program to prevent regional proliferation. Even if the Iran nuclear deal cannot be revived, Washington must utilize diplomatic tools to deter further nuclear escalation. The outcome of negotiations with Saudi Arabia will not only impact the region but also set a precedent for other nations like South Korea and Germany considering expanding their civilian nuclear programs. The U.S. must navigate these discussions carefully, understanding that the decisions made will not only affect regional power dynamics but also have repercussions on the global nuclear landscape.

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