On Thanksgiving, a story by David E. Sanger and William J. Broad in The New York Times was titled Saudis Want a U.S. Nuclear Deal. Can They Be Trusted Not to Build a Bomb?
The two veteran reporters noted that before intelligence agencies concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, they were trying to figure out whether he was seeking to provide his kingdom with the capability to build its own nuclear weapons. Part of the reason for their interest was that bin Salman has been negotiating with the United States to buy designs for nuclear power plants worth as much as $80 billion:
But there is a hitch: Saudi Arabia insists on producing its own nuclear fuel, even though it could buy it more cheaply abroad, according to American and Saudi officials familiar with the negotiations. That raised concerns in Washington that the Saudis could divert their fuel into a covert weapons project—exactly what the United States and its allies feared Iran was doing before it reached the 2015 nuclear accord, which President Trump has since abandoned.
Prince Mohammed set off alarms when he declared earlier this year, in the midst of the negotiation, that if Iran, Saudi Arabia’s fiercest rival, “developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” His negotiators stirred more worries by telling the Trump administration that Saudi Arabia would refuse to sign an agreement that would allow United Nations inspectors to look anywhere in the country for signs that the Saudis might be working on a bomb, American officials said.
The murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi spurred Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman of California, a senior member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, to answer the question acidly: “A country that can’t be trusted with a bone saw shouldn’t be trusted with nuclear weapons.”
Indeed, the murder has roused even some of the kingdom’s usual supporters in Congress to threaten to cut off support for the vicious Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war, and any nuclear arrangement will presumably have to overcome more than the usual timid opposition to Washington’s coziness with Riyadh. Another potential obstacle to any nuclear arrangement seems likely to be the findings of the Trump-Russia investigation, which various commentators have reported will be devastating for Donald Trump and members of his family.
Thus, for the moment, it would seem the question in that headline probably is moot. Which is a good thing since providing the Saudi autocracy nuclear capability without restrictions or inspections is a clear violation of Article III of the Nuclear nonProliferation Treaty. Not that this matters to Trump. Since he doesn’t think much of most international agreements and frequently has declared he can make better ones, it’s a bit of a surprise that he hasn’t already announced the United States is pulling out of the 50-year-old NPT. But then maybe he’s never heard of it.
Intelligence agency Paul R. Pillar had an especially bullseye response last week to the Times piece. At Lobelog, he noted that some of what the Saudis seek to jettison in any nuclear deal—and which the Trump regime has been negotiating via Energy Secretary Rick Perry—are the very things included in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. That multilateral agreement, of course, is the one Trump bailed from despite the fact that Tehran has complied with every provision, according to repeated inspections by the International Atomic Energy:
The Saudi regime has been making noises for several years about wanting to “get whatever Iran gets,” as if the JCPOA involved Iran getting something nuclear rather than having its nuclear program set back and restricted. A reasonable U.S. response to such talk would be to say, “All right, you can have an agreement with terms that match what is in the JCPOA.” This would mean, besides strict limits on the amount and level of uranium enrichment, a total ban on domestic reprocessing of spent reactor fuel. So, Riyadh would have to discard its dreams of using reactors to make its own nuclear fuel. It would mean the same sort of far-reaching inspection arrangement to which Iran is subject, including challenge inspections of non-declared facilities. And it would mean no assistance from the United States in the form of reactor sales or other help in developing a nuclear program. Saudi Arabia would not “get” anything nuclear from the United States because under the JCPOA Iran didn’t get anything nuclear from the United States either.
In addition, to match Iran’s experience, Saudi Arabia would be subject to punishing economic sanctions until and unless it agreed to all these terms. Or, to be totally consistent with the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran, Saudi Arabia would be subject to punishing economic sanctions even if it did agree to and observe those terms. But this is merely one of the most blatant ways in which the administration’s policies toward the region have been inconsistent and hypocritical.
The last thing the Middle East needs, or that the world needs, is another nation with nuclear weapons capability. Any White House effort now or in the future to make that a possibility should be pulverized by Congress.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.