A dangerous loop has been established between Iran and its Middle Eastern neighbors – Arab countries that feel threatened will step up nuclear activity, which in turn will make it more difficult to rein in the Islamic Republic.
In Saudi Arabia there are two nuclear research centers – one operates in the open, while the second stays in the shadows, and most of its activity is secret. This year, satellite images showed that Saudi Arabia has built, for the first time, a factory to manufacture long-range surface-to-surface missiles as well as a research nuclear reactor. The kingdom has also recently discovered that it owns large deposits of uranium.
In October 2019, outgoing US Energy Secretary Rick Perry confirmed that talks about American aid for Saudi Arabia’s nuclear project were moving ahead. Perry noted that the two sides intended to sign a “123” agreement, but Riyadh announced it was unwilling to commit to not enriching uranium. Uranium enrichment can be used for the legitimate purpose of fueling a research reactor and providing power, but also as a source of fissile material for nuclear weapons, as it has in the military projects underway in Pakistan and Iran.
The kingdom’s interest in nuclearization is nothing new, nor is the concern that in certain circumstances and conditions it could turn toward nuclear weapons. That fear became more strongly based in March 2018, when Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman said publicly – and explicitly – for the first time that if Iran acquired military nuclear capabilities, the Saudis would follow suit without delay. Indeed, the main motivation in developing nuclear capability, even if not at a military level, is security. However, it’s not clear whether bin Salman was referring to Saudi Arabia developing its own nuclear weapons, or buying them, or joining forces with Pakistan or some other entity.
The way the Saudis see things, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal only increased Tehran’s aggression, rather than stopping its long-term nuclear aspirations. Worse, the dynamic of escalation Iran has created with the US this past year could lead to an even better deal for Iran, or even the US leaving the Iranian nuclear issue unaddressed.
It’s possible that a dangerous nuclear loop has been established between Iran and its neighbors: Iran’s nuclear efforts are motivating the states that feel threatened by Iran to nuclearize, and attempts by Saudi Arabia and Turkey to nuclearize do nothing to convince Iran to stop its nuclear program. At some point, Iran and its neighbors’ progress on nuclear infrastructure and knowledge could pass the point of no return.
In addition, recent years have seen more and more civil nuclear projects in the region, projects that are not intended for military use and which the international community sees as legitimate. These projects are slowly creating a new reality in which nuclear capabilities are spreading slowly, making knowledge and capabilities more common. Thus, one legitimate step after another could lead to the taboo nuclear barrier. Which is why it is not in Israel’s interest for Saudi Arabia to develop its civil nuclear project, even though Jerusalem and Riyadh have common goals and – according to reports – the two countries are working together on strategic issues.
Taking a broader look, it could be said that Israel has an interest in preventing even Arab countries that cooperate with Israel, whether openly or in secret, from nuclearizing. This is because of the concern over a regional dynamic of nuclearization (which could push Iran to step up its own nuclear work); concern over dissemination of nuclear information; and concerns about a future change to the alignment of regional players or changes to friendly nations – for example, if a regime were to fall.
When we take all these factors into account, it appears that it would be best for Israel if the US were to help Saudi Arabia with its nuclear program, but insist that the latter comply with the “gold standard.” In particular, Saudi Arabia’s uranium enrichment capacity must be held in check, and a precedent in which the US and the international community help a Middle Eastern entity transition into uranium enrichment must be avoided.