The Saudi crown prince has confirmed his country would seek to acquire a nuclear arsenal if Iran developed one, throwing fresh doubt on a possible US-Saudi nuclear cooperation deal currently under negotiation.
Joe Biden’s Democratic allies in the US Senate have warned his administration will face a tough battle for approval of a deal normalising relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia if it includes substantial nuclear cooperation with Riyadh, because of distrust of Saudi intentions.
In an interview on Wednesday, Mohammed bin Salman added weight to suspicions that an ostensibly civilian nuclear programme could be diverted to military purposes if Saudi Arabia felt under threat.
Questioned by Fox News about the prospect of an Iranian bomb, the crown prince said “we are concerned of any country getting a nuclear weapon”, adding that if Iran did successfully develop a weapon “we will have to get one”.
Prince Mohammed made a similar warning in 2018, and its repetition suggests military options are still a factor in the kingdom’s nuclear planning.
The Biden administration has focused a great deal of diplomatic effort into securing a Saudi-Israeli normalisation deal, which Prince Mohammed said was getting closer “every day”. Any such agreement would involve US incentives for Saudi participation. The Saudis have asked for a nuclear cooperation agreement with the US, without the tough non-proliferation restrictions that normally accompany such deals, and some form of formalised security guarantees.
According to diplomats briefed on the talks’ agenda, under the potential agreement Saudi Arabia would move towards diplomatic relations with Israel and resume funding of the Palestinian Authority, while Israel would be asked to make some form of concessions to the Palestinians.
The deal is aimed in part at restoring US credibility as a broker in the region, pushing back Chinese influence, but there are a number of obstacles to such a complex agreement coming to fruition.
According to diplomatic sources, the elderly and ailing King Salman made a rare intervention in state policy to insist the Palestinians be given tangible territorial benefits as a precondition of normalisation.
“For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part,” Prince Mohammed said in the Fox interview. But any transfers of land to Palestinian control would be fiercely opposed by Israel’s hard-right cabinet.
Furthermore, formalised security guarantees are historically very hard to get through Congress, and resistance would be all the stronger in the Saudi case, in view of the kingdom’s terrible human rights record.
Arguably the biggest hurdle is nuclear cooperation. Administration officials led by Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and north Africa, briefed a small number of Democratic senators before the August recess but gave no indication of how far Biden would go towards accepting Saudi conditions on the issue, but the fact they did not rule out meeting such demands has caused some alarm.
“They have consulted with us on the other broad contours of it but not in any great detail because they want to give themselves room,” one congressional aide familiar with the talks said. “But if they were to bring an agreement to Congress that included domestic uranium enrichment on Saudi soil, I think that would be very controversial here. There’s going to be significant scepticism in the party.”
If any kind of deal is reached, administration officials have told Congress they would prefer it to be concluded by the beginning of next year when the president’s re-election campaign begins in earnest.
Any US cooperation in helping a foreign state build up a civilian nuclear programme is governed by section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act, generally known as “123 agreements” aimed at ensuring no nuclear technology or material under the agreement is used to make weapons.
Two recently signed agreements, with the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam, included voluntary declarations from those countries that they would not pursue enrichment or reprocessing (necessary for making weapons-grade fuel) and both signed the “additional protocol” of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), agreeing to enhanced inspections.
If the Biden administration relaxed these conditions for Saudi Arabia, it would trigger outrage in Congress, where antipathy to Riyadh stretches across the aisle.
As acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in the Obama administration, Thomas Countryman was involved in nuclear cooperation talks with Riyadh that went nowhere because of US non-proliferation requirements.
Countryman, now the board chair of the US-based Arms Control Association, said he was “pleasantly surprised” when the Trump administration stuck to those requirements, continuing the impasse.
“Then I was not so pleasantly surprised to see a greater enthusiasm in the Biden administration for a nuclear renaissance,” he said. “Because it’s Biden instead of Trump who is being far more efficacious in pursuing that.”
The state department declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the talks, but a senior administration official said on Wednesday: “Whatever is done regarding civil nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia or anybody else, will meet stringent US non-proliferation standards.”
Kirsten Fontenrose, who was the senior director for the Gulf in Donald Trump’s national security council, said that if Riyadh could not get a nuclear cooperation deal with the US, it could go to other countries, such as China. Beijing would in theory have to abide by non-proliferation restrictions agreed by the multinational Nuclear Suppliers Group, but it is not clear the Chinese government would observe such guidelines.
“The Biden administration is trying to get creative and they’re being extremely smart about it,” Fontenrose said. “The Saudis could say: we really don’t have an option but to go with China, unless you do this. That may be helpful here. It may actually help the Biden administration get Congress onboard.”
The Biden administration appears to believe that the danger of ceding influence to China in the Gulf, combined with the fact any tripartite deal would have the backing of the Israel lobby, will persuade Congress to accept some areas of cooperation with Riyadh it would otherwise refuse to swallow.
“This is yet more evidence of the administration’s complete obsession with strategic competition, which is the frame through which they were putting everything in foreign policy,” said Matt Duss, a former foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, and now executive vice-president at the Center for International Policy thinktank.
Duss added that the strategic competition prism was steadily displacing human rights and democracy promotion in Biden’s foreign policy, despite earlier commitments.
A US-Saudi-Israeli deal, he said, “would end that discussion”. “It would completely put a period at the end of any notion of the human rights agenda.”