The international community was convinced of the sheer danger of nuclear weapons after the U.S. wiped the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki off the map during WWII and the world nearly experienced nuclear armageddon in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the decades since these incidents, piles of stringent international regulations and laws have limited both development of nuclear weapons and the cultivation of nuclear energy for civilian purposes.
These norms have not bothered a group of CEOs, former generals and a billionaire real estate investor from making a ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme of selling sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. Nor did those norms trouble U.S. President Donald Trump, who has reportedly supported the ongoing negotiations.
The secret scheme to sell Saudi nuclear technology was revealed by a recent U.S. House oversight committee report, and alarm bells immediately sounded from nuclear experts, who are concerned that the deal is not compliant with regulatory norms on nuclear technology and who do not trust Saudi to not weaponize its nuclear program.
The current deal only promises to provide Saudi with the nuclear technology required to develop a number of civilian power plants, but Saudi authorities have long refused to promise they won’t develop nuclear weapons. In fact, the country’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, explicitly said “without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
A nuclear-armed Saudi is still a very unlikely scenario; one that would hopefully be prevented even if Saudi authorities attempted to weaponize any future nuclear program. But it is now no longer out of the question, since the secret deal is reportedly ongoing and the current administration has signalled its disdain for nuclear nonproliferation norms.
Imagining what a nuclear-armed Saudi would do to the Middle East and the world, then, is an important exercise that spells out the existential stakes of nuclear weapons, even if they are never used.
So what does the world look like if Saudi Arabia acquired nuclear weapons? It is not good, to say the least.
Assessing the Likelihood of Saudi Racing for a Nuke
A nuclear facility in Iran (AFP/FILE)
Currently, the chances of Saudi receiving nuclear technology and transforming its civilian nuclear program into a military weapons program are low. But the way Saudi officials have conducted themselves in regulatory negotiations aimed at placing limits on a prospective nuclear program has experts worried Saudi is seeking to preserve the option to weaponize the technology.
“I think it’s important not to overreact to the possible sale to Saudi of a nuclear power plant,” said Laura Rockwood, executive director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and NonProliferation, to Al Bawaba.
“It's a bit of a leap to go from selling a nuclear power plant to suggesting that the country could acquire nuclear weapons - as they don't necessarily go hand in hand,” she added.
In general, developing nuclear weapons is a herculean task that consumes much of a state’s budget, resources and time. Nuclear energy is currently fueled by the enriched uranium, which is a form of uranium that has a certain percentage of uranium-235. The more uranium-235 there is in the chemical composition, the more highly enriched it is.
Civilian nuclear power plants require uranium to be enriched at around 3-5 percent, which is considered a harmless level of enrichment. To turn uranium into a potent tool to make deadly nuclear weapons, it must be enriched to anywhere between 20 and 85 percent. In order to actually enrich uranium to these levels, expensive and high-tech facilities need to be built furnished with state-of-the-art centrifuges or other equipment.
When Iran was trying to enrich its uranium with centrifuges, the U.S. and Israel targeted those centrifuges with a virus called Stuxnet, which caused the centrifuges to malfunction, thus delaying the whole process.
Saudi has ratified the most basic international regulation on nuclear proliferation, the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The treaty has been signed by the vast majority of the world’s countries and mandates any nuclear facility to be inspected and approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The IAEA has become an authoritative global arbiter in overseeing nuclear development, but it and the NPT are not full-proof. North Korea acceded to the NPT in 1985, but withdrew from it in 2003 in order to aggressively pursue a nuclear weapons program. Iran ratified the NPT, but violated it by secretly building its uranium enrichment program.
Apart from NPT, Saudi has refused to sign other basic nonproliferation agreements including a modified small quantity protocol safeguard and the Additional Protocol (AP) that grants the IAEA greater oversight. Saudi has also refused to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.
When the U.S. plans to sell sensitive nuclear technology, whether for civilian or military purposes, it is required to develop a joint agreement with the receiving party. This agreement, called a 123 Agreement, stipulates the terms and uses of the nuclear technology in order to prevent nuclear proliferation. For years, Saudi has refused to sign one.
“The relevant question that has been raised is whether the US would insist on the same conditions as those in the U.A.E. 123 Agreement,” Rockwood said.
U.S. and Saudi officials meet (AFP/FILE)
The 123 Agreement with the U.A.E. bars the country from developing its own uranium enrichment program and mandates the ratification of the Additional Protocol. In practical terms, the Agreement all but makes it impossible for the U.A.E. to weaponize its own nuclear technology, making it a “gold standard” for nonproliferation advocates.
“Media reports suggest that the current US administration may not insist on those same conditions, arguing that if the US does so, then Saudi might buy the reactor from another country, [for example] Russia or China,” Rockwood added.
“The two basic issues here are: [first] under what conditions is the U.S. planning on selling nuclear technology to Saudi, and what exactly are they planning on selling; [and second] if the US is contemplating reducing those conditions, what is motivating those reductions," she added.
“The rationale for the Saudi or any of the other GCC countries acquiring nuclear technology does not come as a surprise to me. Ever since the Iran nuclear deal has happened, there has been huge skepticism in Saudi Arabia, Israel and so on,” Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of the Nuclear and Space Initiative, told Al Bawaba.
“Saudi Arabia doesn’t just want reactors—it wants the ability to enrich uranium. And that is very sensitive technology,” Jon Wolfsthal, formerly a top nonproliferation official in President Barack Obama’s administration and now director of the Nuclear Crisis Group, explained. Some even speculate that Saudi is relying on Pakistani nukes to be delivered to them in case they wish to attain them.
Suspicious as Saudi’s simultaneous enthusiasm for a nuclear program and reluctance to sign onto nonproliferation agreement may be, its danger is compounded by the Trump team’s reported willingness to proceed with nuclear tech transfers without those safeguards.
U.S. head of the Department of Energy Rick Perry warned in 2018 that placing stringent safeguards on Saudi may prompt the country to seek deals with Russia or China instead, repeating a common talking point among those who wish to provide Saudi with nuclear tech.
A Nuclear-Capable Saudi, An Uncontrollable World
The Japanese city of Hiroshima lies in ruins after a U.S. atomic bomb is dropped on it during WWII (Wikimedia)
Imagining a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia may feel fantastical and grossly unlikely. But it is now an unavoidable potential scenario that is worth pondering, if only to understand the stakes involved with nuclear weapons.
As they are currently used by modern states like North Korea, India, Pakistan, the U.S. Russia and Israel, nuclear weapons are intended to deter any potential antagonists and to give that country leverage in international negotiations.
They were developed in the early-to-mid 20th century; a time defined by massive, warring states. A nuke was a key asset to any aspiring global power, as they could easily knock out a capital city, a manufacturing hub or a population center.
Nowadays, conflicts are often fought between entangled regional powers in unending, mutating proxy wars, where states fund satellite groups, competing local interests and send specialized teams or mercenaries rather than a massive invasion. In this context, nukes have less immediate strategic benefit and pose a series of risks.
Most obviously, any sign that Saudi wants to weaponize a nuclear program would disincentivize Iran from complying with its own nuclear agreement. Both countries may get locked into an arms race to develop the bomb first, which is a common feature among competing powers seeking military dominance over one another: it happened with Russia and the U.S., as well as India and Pakistan.
It could very well happen with Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“A nuclear weapons in Saudi Arabia will destabilize the region even further,” Chen Kane, Director of the Middle East Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Al Bawaba.
“Riyadh has already all the conventional superiority over Iran it needs to defend itself,” she added.
“If Tehran goes on to develop a nuclear weapon at some stage, the possibility of a nuclear Saudi Arabia is not difficult to imagine,” Rajagopalan further argued.
A nuclear-armed Saudi would also dramatically heighten the danger of nearby proxy conflicts it may engage in by giving enemies high-value facilities to target. For instance, the Iran-backed Houthi rebel group in Yemen has launched several ballistic missiles into Saudi from their territory.
Just one well-placed missile could knock out a nuclear power plant or enrichment facility, creating the potential for an ecological and human catastrophe. Though this conflict in Yemen may be over by the time Saudi acquired a nuke, other armed groups lurking nearby would doubtless be operational.
Beyond potential for singular attacks or an arms race, lessening the rules for nuclear proliferation reflects a far more daunting global shift that could have devastating consequences.
Rajagopalan noted that a nuclear-armed Saudi would not radically alter the global geopolitical map, it “would be a further reflection of the weakening nuclear nonproliferation architecture.” In other words, it would contribute to the deterioration of nuclear arms control norms that were developed precisely in response to the destruction such weapons can reap.
It is all too easy to imagine a series of nuclear arms races spiraling into all-out armageddon, but this remains a far-fetched, alarmist scenario.
What is far more likely and thus more potent, is that nuclear nonproliferation norms will degrade along with other arms regulations, and give way to individual states’ investing more in developing high-powered, indiscriminate weapons.
The U.S.' current approach to selling nuclear technology to Saudi, which includes minimizing regulation for the sake of expediency and cutting out competitor suppliers like Russia and China, could seriously jeopardize decades of work to control the spread of hyper-dangers weapons such as ballistic missiles, barrel bombs and cluster munitions.
A newly emboldened Saudi may also act more aggressively, prompting its enemies to take dramatic counter-measures that include building up their own arsenals, explained Kingston Reif the Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association.
These escalations and counter-measures would all "deal a major blow to the integrity and viability of the global nonproliferation regime and lower the normative barrier to nuclear weapons acquisition in other regions of the world," he said.
In Aleppo, Syrian civilians are pulled out a building hit by a barrel bomb (AFP/FILE)
By fast-tracking technology transfers with little safeguards, the international community loses its regulatory power. Global bodies will be less and less able to control individual states and their nascent arsenals.
As a result, conflicts may be harder to regulate and thus become far more deadly if states deploy these weapons with no repercussions from the international community.
The scheme to deliver nuclear technology to Saudi and other neighboring states without placing stringent restrictions on the tech is a sign these norms are already weakening. Another is Trump’s termination of a bilateral treaty with Russia barring the development of certain ballistic missiles, which was credited with stemming the global effort to produce nuclear weapons.
Concurrent with Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF was an announcement that the U.S. would rebuild its nuclear arsenal "until people come to their senses.”
Norms of nonproliferation are created over decades of practice and compliance. Witnessing their total degradation may also take years and could happen long after Trump’s tenure as president is over. But once they are gone, the conflicts that tested them will have massive human costs.
When states test the international community’s boundaries for wartime conduct and find there are less rules to stop them from deploying indiscriminate weapons, civilians will be the ones to pay the biggest price.
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