Saudi Arabia is seeking to enrich its own uranium, prompting fears of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East after President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal.
Riyadh says it wants to make nuclear fuel to diversify its energy sources but recent public warnings from Saudi leaders about acquiring a nuclear bomb have raised doubts about their commitment to non-proliferation as the Iran nuclear agreement teeters.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned during a trip to the US in March that if Iran developed a nuclear bomb his country would “follow suit as soon as possible”.
That warning was repeated by his foreign minister this week after Mr Trump withdrew from the deal with Iran and its leaders threatened to resume enrichment. Saudi Arabia would “do whatever it takes to protect our people,” Adel al-Jubeir told CNN. “We have made it very clear that if Iran acquires a nuclear capability we will do everything we can to do the same.”
Those statements have thrown into fresh focus Saudi Arabia’s demand that it should be given the right to enrich its own uranium under a nuclear co-operation deal with the US.
Saudi Arabia is in negotiations over an agreement for American companies to sell it nuclear technology and fuel, having drawn up plans to build 18 reactors. It is demanding that the agreement allow it the right to enrich its own uranium and reprocess spent fuel, activities permitted under the non- proliferation treaty for civilian use.
Those technologies, however, can also be used to produce the highly enriched uranium and separate plutonium for nuclear weapons, which is why the Iran nuclear deal limited both. Iran was permitted to enrich but was ordered to stop when covert weapons research was uncovered. Saudi Arabia has plentiful uranium under its soil, 5 per cent of global reserves, according to Prince Mohammed. Experts warn that its desire to have its own independent nuclear fuel production points to ambitions beyond that of civilian power production, much as it did in Iran.
“Saudi Arabia obviously wants an enrichment option for the same reason Iran did: for a nuclear weapons hedging strategy,” Mark Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the Institute of Strategic Studies-Americas, said. “The Saudis are more honest about this purpose than Iran ever was.”
The Trump administration, which has forged a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, is sympathetic to its demands that it not face greater nuclear restrictions than Iran. However, Congress, which must approve American nuclear exports to Saudi Arabia, has voiced opposition to endorsing Riyadh’s right to enrichment. The US has urged all states seeking nuclear co-operation to forgo that right.
In a testimony to the Senate armed forces committee in March Rick Perry, the energy secretary, warned that Saudi Arabia could turn to Russia or China if the US tried to tie its hands on enrichment and warned there would be no oversight of civil nuclear projects if that happened. A final agreement with Saudi Arabia is expected to be submitted to Congress by mid-June.
Opponents say Saudi Arabia’s threats alone should be reason enough for the US to refuse a deal. Will Tobey, an arms control official under the Bush administration, told the committee: “The United States has never before contemplated, let alone concluded, a nuclear co-operation agreement with a state that is threatening even provisionally to leave the non-proliferation treaty.”
Saudi Arabia signed the treaty in 1988 under duress from the US after a rupture over its purchase of nuclear-capable missiles.
The US warned that the deal had put Saudi Arabia on Israel’s target list. The Saudis had previously refused to sign the deal because Israel had not, providing no oversight to its covert nuclear weapons programme.
Saudi Arabia’s push for enrichment adds another combustible element to a volatile region where tensions have heightened since Mr Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran deal.
The shadow war between Iran and Israel in Syria burst into the open this week with an exchange of fire that left Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria depleted. Syrian anti-aircraft systems were attacked after they opened fire on Israeli jets.
In a telephone call last night, Theresa May told Mr Trump that Britain remained “firmly committed” to the Iran nuclear deal. A spokesman for Mrs May said: “The prime minister raised the potential impact of US sanctions on those firms which are currently conducting business in Iran. They agreed for talks to take place between our teams.”
• Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said last night that if North Korea agreed to surrender its nuclear arsenal Washington would work with Pyongyang to rebuild its economy. “If North Korea takes bold action to quickly denuclearise, the United States is prepared to work with North Korea to achieve prosperity on a par with our South Korean friends,” he said.