By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Will Saudi Arabia Get the Bomb?

Last year, less than a month before Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel changed everything, Israel and Saudi Arabia were negotiating an agreement to normalize ties. After decades of icy relations, Riyadh’s price for peace was admittedly high: in addition to U.S. security guarantees and at least token Israeli concessions on Palestinian sovereignty, Saudi negotiators were demanding access to civilian nuclear technology. Today, despite a fresh push by the Biden administration, such an agreement remains only a remote possibility. With the Israel-Hamas war raging on, even if Saudi officials were interested in talking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they would likely find it impossible to negotiate a lasting peace while Arab publics, including their own, are outraged at the humanitarian crisis Israel’s military campaign has created in Gaza. Although negotiations may never resume, they remain an important source of potential leverage in the U.S.-Israeli relationship—one that officials in Washington believe could not only help facilitate a cease-fire in Gaza but also induce broader Israeli concessions on Palestinian statehood.

As the United States thinks through how to promote stability in the Middle East, both during and after the war in Gaza, the issue of the Saudi nuclear program will loom large. If Washington hopes to dangle the carrot of Saudi normalization to motivate Israeli policy, it will need to consider Riyadh’s demands for civilian nuclear cooperation and defense requests—a development that could dramatically alter the regional security picture, particularly if Saudi Arabia could eventually want a weapons program, too. For now, the proposed Saudi nuclear program would involve civilian nuclear reactors managed under a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But Riyadh has historically voiced unease with even those standard limitations, and peaceful nuclear programs are often the first step toward acquiring nuclear weapons. Although Saudi Arabia does not yet have substantial nuclear infrastructure of its own, it is constructing a small nuclear research reactor on the outskirts of Riyadh and building ballistic missiles with China’s help.

Saudi Arabia may well stick to civilian nuclear development for the time being. But given the looming threat of an Iranian bomb, it may be tempted to move toward military nuclearization in the future. The United States must work to mitigate that risk. It is a difficult line for Washington to toe: cooperate too little, and it could lose Saudi support for normalization with Israel and cede influence to rivals such as China; grant unconditional support for Saudi nuclear-enrichment capabilities, and Riyadh could seize the opportunity to develop a nuclear weapons program down the road. Washington must therefore accept Saudi Arabia’s peaceful nuclear ambitions but insist on strong measures and strict regulations to preempt Saudi proliferation—and prevent a regional arms race.


Gateway Technologies

Although Saudi Arabia’s current nuclear ambitions are ostensibly for peaceful purposes, civilian programs can be a prelude to military ones. Iran, North Korea, Libya, Iraq, and Syria all clandestinely pursued nuclear weapons programs while pretending to adhere to safeguards. These examples demonstrate the challenges of detecting and preventing covert nuclear proliferation if countries have enrichment capabilities as part of their civilian nuclear programs, underscoring the urgent need for strict verification protocols.

A civilian nuclear program could facilitate a nuclear weapons program by giving Saudi Arabia dual-use technologies such as fuel rods, reprocessing facilities, and advanced reactor designs. The reactors and uranium-enrichment capabilities would provide the kingdom with the infrastructure and knowledge base necessary for advancing its nuclear capabilities through a diversion of materials or expertise toward military applications. Riyadh could then use its advanced enrichment technologies, such as gas centrifuges, to produce weapons-grade uranium, evading detection by international inspectors through concealment and deception. Saudi Arabia could also separate the uranium isotopes needed for highly enriched uranium within civilian facilities, making it challenging for inspectors to detect the existence of a military program. Enriched uranium necessary to fuel nuclear reactors could also be diverted and further enriched to levels suitable for a nuclear explosion. A Saudi civilian nuclear program would therefore amount to a latent nuclear capability—the technical capacity to proliferate if it desired to do so. With that, Saudi Arabia would join 31 other states, including Germany, Egypt, Brazil, and Japan, that have held this status throughout history.

The next and more aggressive step would be to escalate from latency to nuclear hedging—the strategic use of a civilian nuclear program as a bargaining chip—or to direct adversarial behavior (as North Korea, for instance, has done). Saudi Arabia could enrich uranium, increase its production of centrifuges, buy nuclear material and equipment from other states, or garner domestic political support for nuclear weapons possession, all with the hope of increasing its bargaining power.


Fighting Fire With Fire

A number of factors could drive Saudi Arabia to seek to possess nuclear weapons, including a desire to bolster national security, deter potential adversaries, and enhance its geopolitical influence. But the main motive will likely emerge from Saudi Arabia’s neighbor and rival: Iran. Tehran, which has had its own civilian nuclear program since the 1950s, is edging closer and closer to nuclear weapons capability. Iran might be able to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb within a matter of weeks, although it would likely take at least another six months to develop a weapon capable of striking a precise target. For now, Iran appears to have decided not to take the next step and weaponize its nuclear program, but the potential endures—and could grow amid mounting regional volatility and as Tehran strengthens its ties to another revisionist nuclear power, Russia. Saudi Arabia has not shied away from making its nuclear intentions clear should Iran go down that nuclear road: its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has said that if Iran were to successfully develop a weapon, Saudi Arabia, too, “will have to get one.”

Part of the motivation would be the fear that an emboldened Iran could step up its support for militant groups such as Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Hamas, knowing that a nuclear weapon gives it some protection from a U.S. or Israeli military response. Iran might also use military force against Saudi Arabia, Israel, or other foes on its own, secure in the knowledge that there are likely limits to escalation if the United States or other countries oppose Iranian aggression. Saudi Arabia may also be interested in pursuing nuclear weapons to match Iranian prestige, believing in the reputational value of the bomb and wanting to reinforce its position and authority in the region.

Iranian nuclear advances could also prompt other countries in the region, such as the United Arab Emirates or Turkey, to shift toward weaponization, triggering a Saudi move in the same direction. The UAE has come under criticism for failing to divulge information about its civilian nuclear facilities, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has previously suggested that Turkey should not be forbidden from obtaining nuclear weapons. Riyadh, which sees itself as a regional leader, would not want either country—especially the UAE, a major competitor—to beat it to the nuclear finish line.

Saudi nuclear hedging or proliferation would entail several major risks. First, Iran and Saudi Arabia could face the stability-instability paradox, the idea that although nuclear weapons may contribute to stability at the strategic level by deterring major war between nuclear-armed states, they can simultaneously fuel distrust and escalation at a lower level. If Iran continues to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear warhead, Riyadh might believe that a Saudi nuclear deterrent could stabilize relations between the two adversaries. But a nuclear weapon would not necessarily deter Iran from pursuing a confrontational foreign policy; Tehran has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to spar with its nuclear-armed enemy, Israel, and to encourage militant action against others in the region. Iran has also fomented unrest in Saudi Arabia itself, inciting riots at the hajj in 1987 and supporting an array of antigovernment groups such as the Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah al-Hejaz. In neighboring Iraq, Tehran has backed a wide array of actors, including Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, both of which have attacked U.S. forces in the region. For Iran, these groups are a way of expanding its influence on the ground and giving it means to undermine rivals or strike at its enemies beyond its borders.

Second, the increasingly prominent role of nuclear weapons in Saudi-Iranian relations risks misperception and, in turn, escalation between the two countries. Saudi Arabia might interpret Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities, even if for hedging purposes, as a signal of hostile intent or as a precursor to weaponization. Iran might see Saudi Arabia’s program as threatening and pursue weaponization itself. This misinterpretation could lead Saudi Arabia to accelerate its own nuclear program, believing it needs a deterrent against a nuclear-armed Iran. This doom spiral of nuclear competition between the two adversaries could lead to an arms race in the region, further increasing the likelihood of a miscalculation or conflict.


Toeing The Nuclear Line

Washington can play a deciding role in determining whether Saudi Arabia acquires a nuclear weapon, but a major question remains: How far is the United States willing to go to protect Saudi Arabia against Tehran? How Riyadh ultimately chooses to respond to a nuclear Iran depends in large part on whether the United States gives Riyadh firm security guarantees, such as a commitment to placing Saudi Arabia under its nuclear umbrella—or even creating a formal security alliance similar to the ones that prevail in Europe or East Asia. Although there are ongoing talks about a formal defense relationship, a U.S.-Saudi security arrangement is far from certain, particularly if Donald Trump wins the presidency. The former president’s refusal to respond to an Iranian attack on a Saudi oil-processing facility in 2019, whereby Tehran crossed what was long assumed to be a U.S. redline, did little to assure Saudi officials that a second Trump administration would have Riyadh’s back.

Beyond a security alliance that would assuage fears of a nuclear Iran, the United States could push Riyadh to sign onto a “123 Agreement” for nuclear cooperation. These deals, named after a section of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, allow access to U.S. civil nuclear technology in exchange for an explicit commitment to refrain from weaponization. The United States has negotiated these agreements on a case-by-case basis with 47 countries, including Brazil, Japan, and Turkey. The agreements usually require a country to adhere to the IAEA safeguards, restrict enrichment levels, and return spent nuclear fuel to the United States to prevent reprocessing for weapons material. The gold standard version of a 123 Agreement includes a total ban on enrichment as an extra layer of protection.

Officials representing the International Atomic Energy Association, Saudi Arabia, and Belgium at the IAEA Nuclear Energy Summit in Brussels, March 2024

One obstacle to such an agreement, however, is Riyadh’s stated desire to enrich uranium domestically to generate electricity through controlled nuclear fission reactions, instead of relying on pre-enriched uranium from external sources. If the United States is unable to negotiate a total ban on enrichment and unwilling to make other concessions, Saudi Arabia may turn to other countries, such as China, for assistance with nuclear technology, leading to a loss of transparency over nuclear activities and facilities—and a loss of influence for the United States. Riyadh has long maintained friendly ties with Beijing, and in recent years, their relationship has grown even closer. In 2019, the two powers finalized a $10 billion agreement aimed at developing a refining and petrochemical complex, and later that year, Chinese geologists helped Saudi Arabia identify uranium deposits in the northwestern part of the country. Beijing has also made diplomatic overtures to Riyadh, having helped broker the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement in 2023.

To preempt a Saudi turn to China, the United States may therefore need to compromise. Washington could consider offering to build a uranium-enrichment facility in Saudi Arabia, which would grant Riyadh greater control over its nuclear fuel supply chain and reduce its dependence on foreign suppliers. The technological expertise and self-sufficiency that would result from having a nuclear energy sector align with Saudi Arabia’s ambitions to diversify its economy as the world weans itself off oil. The United States could still insist on strong measures to prevent Saudi Arabia from developing a military program; it could demand, for example, that any enrichment facility be run by U.S. personnel, or install a remote shutdown mechanism as a safeguard in the event of a physical takeover. But Washington must be clear-eyed about such provisions: these measures would certainly decrease the risk of Saudi nuclear proliferation, but they would not eliminate them.


Saudi Arabia As It Is

It is vital that the United States works to restrict Saudi Arabia’s ability to develop its own nuclear weapons program from the start. Washington cannot afford delays; back in 2009, human rights concerns delayed a 123 Agreement with the UAE in Congress, and any agreement with Saudi Arabia will be sure to receive even more scrutiny. But concerns over proliferation in the Middle East should prevail.

As an alternative to Saudi enrichment, Washington could offer to guarantee a reliable supply of enriched uranium for Saudi Arabia’s reactors, eliminating its need for domestic enrichment facilities. Possibilities range from a long moratorium on Saudi domestic enrichment to having enrichment facilities run by U.S. rather than Saudi personnel, with remote shutdown mechanisms in case of a potential takeover. Washington could condition a ban on enrichment as part of bilateral defense cooperation. This could take the form of a formal ban signed onto by Riyadh, or a nonbinding supplementary document accompanying a formal agreement that contains an additional provision wherein Saudi Arabia agrees not to set up a fuel cycle infrastructure. That approach would allow Riyadh to retain a technical right to enrichment, but one it would agree in advance not to exercise. Given Iran’s increasingly aggressive regional posture, a beefed-up U.S.-Saudi security agreement will remain a top Saudi priority—and a powerful incentive for Riyadh to cap its nuclear ambitions.

The United States must also remember that managing the Iranian nuclear program is critical to preventing Saudi and other regional proliferation. Iran’s program is dangerous in and of itself, but it is also dangerous as a potential driver of proliferation elsewhere. Washington must revisit its toolbox of diplomacy and statecraft even if the Iran nuclear deal—which imposed restrictions on Iranian nuclear facilities, and from which then-President Trump withdrew in 2018—cannot be revived.

Washington cannot wish away Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions; if the kingdom fails to get the support it needs from the United States, it will turn to other countries to underwrite its nuclear program. U.S. policymakers should continue to impress upon their Saudi counterparts the advantages of American reactor technology over Chinese and Russian technology, emphasizing the technical and reputational benefits of adhering to U.S. standards for nuclear programs and fostering transparency. These benefits go beyond access to the United States’ world-renowned advanced nuclear technologies. They would also affirm Saudi Arabia’s commitment to upholding a rules-based international order characterized by norms and cooperation. If Washington fails to make Riyadh a compelling offer, it risks losing any influence over Saudi Arabia’s nuclear capabilities.

The stakes of U.S. policy toward a Saudi nuclear program extend beyond the kingdom itself, and even the Middle East. Washington’s strategy this time will set a precedent that could apply to other countries, such as South Korea and Germany, that may seek to expand their civilian nuclear programs. Saying yes to one ally makes it harder to say no to others. Washington must proceed knowing that the outcome of these negotiations could do more than upend the regional balance of power. It might also change the global nuclear calculus.



For updates click hompage here




shopify analytics