By Guy Taylor
Saudi Arabia has begun work on its first nuclear research reactor, prompting fresh concern Riyadh will soon seek to develop nuclear weapons if Iran restarts its own weapons program amid Washington’s reimposition of sanctions and withdrawal from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.
The official Saudi Press Agency reported that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman partook in a ceremony Monday to mark the opening of construction in Riyadh for the research reactor, a facility that could be used education and medical purposes — or for atomic weapons research.
The agency offered few details beyond saying the move fit with the oil-rich kingdom’s desire to diversify its energy sector. However, the ceremony’s timing, on the same day the Trump administration reimposed sweeping sanctions on Iran, suggests Riyadh sought to send a message that it is prepared for a potential nuclear arms race.
While Crown Prince Mohammed has offered no public comment on the matter this week, he triggered global headlines in March by vowing to match any future Iranian nuclear weapons development with Saudi countermeasures.
The crown prince made no secret during an interview at the time with CBS news of his distaste for Iran, the Middle East’s Shiite Muslim powerhouse and the chief rival of predominantly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia.
In addition to comparing Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Adolf Hitler and Iran’s expansionist posture toward the region to Nazi Germany’s activities in Europe prior to World War II, the crown prince said that “without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
The prospect of a Saudi-Iran nuclear race has hung in the backdrop of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal — a deal that saw the U.S. and other world powers ease sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits to its nuclear program, which was long suspected of clandestine atomic bomb development.
As the administration has reimposed sanctions against Iran during recent months, the regime in Tehran has threatened to restart operations for uranium enrichment, the process needed to develop nuclear bombs.
It remains to be seen whether the Iranians with follow through on the threat. But there were indications Monday that both Riyadh and Tehran are watching each other closely.
Iranian state media was among the first to report Saudi Arabia’s nuclear research reactor ceremony, claiming Riyadh has been “pushing for an atomic deal” with Washington that could “pave the way for the Saudi regime to enrich uranium.”
It was not immediately clear what the Trump administration’s posture toward — or potential involvement in — the development may be. Several reports cited previously publicized Saudi plans to build as many as 16 nuclear reactors over the coming years as it seeks to diversify its energy sector.
According to The Times of Israel, Mr. Trump faced pressure in March from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt any U.S. sale of the reactors to the Saudis. The online newspaper maintained that Mr. Trump told Mr. Netanyahu at the time that if the U.S. did not supply the reactors, Russia or China likely would.
The Fars News Agency in Tehran, meanwhile, suggested Monday’s reactor ceremony in Riyadh was an attempt to by Crown Prince Mohammed to deter attention away from the ongoing scandal over the murder of dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi.
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