Behnam Ben Taleblu – FDD
audi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman met with President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday, the first stop on the prince’s two-and-half-week tour of the United States. Saudi Arabia is looking for American reassurance and support on a wide range of issues related to the Iranian threat, including the kingdom’s quest for nuclear power.
Starting in 2015, the Saudis stepped up their search for nuclear power by signing agreements and setting up joint ventures with South Korea, Argentina, and even China. In February 2017, the kingdom enlisted the help of several lobbying firms to help them navigate the American market. And earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry met with Saudi officials in London to discuss a potential nuclear deal. The main point of tension between Washington and Riyadh is whether the Saudis will forgo domestic fuel enrichment or reprocessing – otherwise known as the “gold standard” in nuclear agreements – since both represent dual-use technologies that could lead to a potential nuclear weapons program.
To press the case for a less restrictive agreement, the Saudis will capitalize on the dangerous precedent set by the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The JCPOA rewarded the Islamic Republic with enrichment privileges despite its illicit quest for nuclear weapons. As the Saudi foreign minister insisted, “We want to have the same rights as other countries.” More pointedly, the crown prince made clear, “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
These statements indicate that Saudi interest in enrichment may have more to do with security than electricity generation. The U.S. should reassure the Saudis by fixing the deal with Iran and countering Tehran’s aggression across the region. For the moment, Washington should keep Riyadh abreast of progress in talks with the Europeans over how to fix the accord. In those talks, the U.S. should not hesitate to remind the Europeans that the kingdom wants to enrich nuclear fuel precisely because the JCPOA is so flawed. As opponents of the JCPOA warned, the deal’s shortcomings threaten to set off a cascade of nuclear proliferation throughout the region.
But one bad nuclear agreement should not beget another. Washington must insist upon the nuclear “gold standard” with Riyadh to stem the potential of a nuclear hedging option by other Arab states. For instance, if the kingdom is permitted domestic enrichment, then the neighboring United Arab Emirates may look to renegotiate its nuclear agreement with U.S. to include an option for domestic enrichment. Continuous cutouts and exceptions to the global nonproliferation regime will eventually lead to its collapse.
Moreover, for the sake of the future of the U.S-Saudi relationship, Washington must convince Riyadh that as an American partner, Saudi Arabia’s prestige and status would take a hit if it chose to harp on the model established by Iran, an American adversary that disrespects the rules-based international order.
By engaging in earnest negotiations with the Saudis, fixing the JCPOA, and contesting Iran’s supply of men, money, and munitions to conflict zones throughout the region, Washington can regain the confidence of its regional partners like Saudi Arabia and dampen their incentive to match Iran’s nuclear ambitions.