By Evan O. Lisman
In a recent interview, Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Adel al-Jubeir claimed that Saudi Arabia reserves the right to arm itself with nuclear weapons should Iran do the same. However, this statement is at odds with the Kingdom’s legal commitments.
Saudi Arabia acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state in 1988. As a member of the NPT, Saudi Arabia is legally bound never to pursue nuclear weapons and work toward their eventual elimination. The country even participated in negotiations for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and voted in favor of its adoption. In a 2017 statement to the United Nations, Saudi Arabia reaffirmed that “security and stability in any region cannot be achieved through possession of weapons of mass destruction.”
Yet, the Kingdom’s leaders have repeatedly cast doubt on their nonproliferation commitments in the face of a nuclear-armed Iran. In addition to al-Jubeir’s recent comment, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has claimed that “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
In some respects, the Trump administration seemingly condoned Saudi Arabia’s proliferation logic. On the campaign trail in 2016, Donald Trump opened the door to the U.S. abandonment of nonproliferation principles, claiming that “it’s only a matter of time until” our allies, including Saudi Arabia, acquire nuclear weapons. In 2018, minister Al-Jubeir declared that the kingdom would “do everything we can” to build a nuclear weapon if Iran does. Asked about this threat, then-Press Secretary Sarah Sanders responded that the White House “does not have a specific policy on that front” but is “very committed to making sure that Iran does not have nuclear weapons.”
While the Trump administration has never shared a specific policy regarding Saudi Arabia’s nuclear threats, it did repeatedly frustrate Congressional efforts to ensure that its nuclear negotiations and authorizations of transfers of knowledge were legal. Unlike other recipients of sensitive U.S. nuclear assistance, Saudi Arabia lacks a comprehensive 123 Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with the United States. More concerning, the country does not have an Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Association — limiting international investigatory power at its nuclear facilities.
In turning away from nuclear agreements and nonproliferation norms, the Trump administration has increased the threat of not only a rogue nuclear-armed Iran, but also a corresponding, dangerous nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Although Saudi Arabia’s recent investment in nuclear facilities remains far from a capable path to the bomb, their interest in the full nuclear fuel cycle without meeting international nuclear transparency standards is cause for concern.
The incoming administration should act quickly to contain and roll back Iran’s nuclear gains, while reaffirming the U.S. commitment to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to any nation — even our allies.