DUBAI – In an interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes” aired during his tour of the United States, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz warned of the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb but, without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” Crown Prince Mohammed declared.
Such comments are far from new. Many senior Saudi officials and commentators have expressed the same sentiments privately to Western diplomats and publicly in recent years.
The Iran nuclear deal aimed to verifiably cap the suspected military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme but the future of that agreement seems increasingly uncertain under the administration of US President Donald Trump.
The Iran nuclear deal of course only addressed one aspect of Iran’s military capabilities and activities that troubled its detractors. Other areas, especially its use of regional proxies and its ballistic missile programme, advance unimpeded.
The Trump administration wants to “fix” the nuclear deal with Iran in areas critics say it is too weak but also wants to force Iran to rein in activities and behaviour seen as destabilising to the region. As it stands, everything is on the line and, despite the different positions of other signatories on the Iran nuclear deal, there are few guarantees to hold it together.
For Riyadh, the scenario of a nuclear-armed Iran has always been viewed as an unprecedented strategic threat that will lead to assured Iranian regional hegemony, creating widespread instability and conflict in the process. For Saudi Arabia, only a nuclear deterrent will be able to balance the likely ambitions of a nuclear-armed Iran. A jeopardised nuclear deal once again raises the spectre of Iran pursuing nuclear weapons capability.
Saudi Arabia has plans to build 16 nuclear power plants over the next two decades to generate cheap electricity and power the country’s economic transformation. Riyadh is reportedly pressing the United States on the right to enrich uranium in return for massive contracts in its nuclear power programme. The right to enrich uranium is seen as an important concession for the Saudis to preserve future options in the event of a dramatic nuclear breakout by Iran.
Experts acknowledge that mastering nuclear technology is a process that cannot take place overnight. The Iranians, for example, began their nuclear engineering efforts in the 1950s. Then, the weaponisation of nuclear materials is a separate and highly complex effort in its own right. Most crucially, there is little reason to suggest the United States is likely to depart from its traditionally stringent positions to nuclear weapons proliferation.
For the foreseeable future, it is highly unlikely the United States would tolerate a nuclear weapons programme, even by its allies, let alone become party to the effort. In the Middle East, the Israeli factor places the scenario of a Saudi nuclear weapons programme almost completely beyond the realm of acceptability for the Americans.
Any potential Saudi effort to develop nuclear weapons is likely to be met with US efforts against it. What the United States could become open to in the event of an Iranian nuclear breakout, however, is providing extended deterrence to Arab Gulf allies, such as Saudi Arabia, in a strategy reminiscent of Cold War tactics.
That would ostensibly posit Iran as an American guarantee for a response in kind if it were to use or threaten the use of nuclear weapons against its US-allied neighbours. Even today, such arrangements are not unusual for the United States, which keeps upward of 100 nuclear bombs at NATO bases in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. Incirlik Air Base in Turkey hosts dozens of American nuclear weapons that are designed to be delivered by US and Turkish F-16s.
Still, the Arab Gulf is an altogether new context as far as American extended deterrence is concerned. Short of a codified alliance such as NATO, US extended deterrence may only work as a short-term solution, if at all, for the Saudis in the shadow of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Ultimately, Riyadh could only feel fully secure with a nuclear-deterrent that was integrated into its own command and control network and to which it has genuine ownership.
That is why the crown prince’s comments on nuclear weapons, like those of many Saudis in the past decade, are not so much an ultimatum but a reminder of the undesirable and unpredictable consequences that will logically follow in the event of a nuclear-armed Iran.