WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump’s energy secretary, Rick Perry, has secretly approved the sale of nuclear power technology and assistance to Saudi Arabia, Reuters revealed this week. Saudi Arabia is reportedly attempting to construct at least two nuclear power plants as part of its effort to diversify its energy sector and its economy as a whole. As part of this plan it has accepted bids from Russia, South Korea and the U.S. for the lucrative contract. Perry’s approval is known as a Part 810 authorization, which allows energy companies to begin the process of planning and starting preliminary work in anticipation of the closing of a formal deal in the future.
While the Saudi proposals are presented as civilian and do not mention nuclear weaponry, U.S. approval and sale of nuclear technology has been seen by many as a prelude to the development of a Saudi nuclear weapon, which could potentially spark a nuclear arms race in the region. Riyadh has long coveted atomic weaponry and has considered developing its own in its quest to maintain military dominance in the region. “If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit” Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the United States, told the Guardian in 2011, noting that the kingdom may feel “compelled” to pursue the option in the future, if tensions with Iran remain high.
In reality, Iran does not have, nor is it trying to acquire, nuclear weapons technology (something quietly conceded by both the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and the CIA), and has lived up to its commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, any such move from Saudi Arabia might provoke a response in kind from Iran, its chief adversary in the region and would sound a death knell for the hopes of the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. The United States has long accused Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons technology and has placed sanctions on the country.
The Israeli connection
An important nuclear player in the region is Israel, one of the few nations in the world that has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Israel is estimated to possess 100 to 200 nuclear weapons and has taken a strongly adversarial position towards Iran. In 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared before a joint session of Congress with a cartoon image of a bomb to give a speech denouncing Iran and warning of an Iranian military threat. Israel has been key in pushing the United States into a more confrontational stance on Iran through a continuous public-relations drive to present the country as a menace.
Last year Mint Press News reported that the Israeli government had begun selling Saudi Arabia nuclear weapons secrets. Ami Dor-on, a senior official and nuclear specialist at the organization Israel’s Homeland Security, blew the whistle on the clandestine practice. The Israeli actions were the latest evidence of a growing cooperation between the two nations. However, the prospect of a nuclear Saudi Arabia has many concerned.
The threat of a nuclear Saudi Arabia
For some time, Saudi Arabia has been making its presence felt in the Middle East, leading to the destabilization of the entire region. In 2011 Saudi tanks rolled into Bahrain to crush the Arab Spring uprising in the island country, and it continues to be a primary driver of the war in Yemen, labeled by some as genocide. At least 22 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance as a result of the Saudi bombardment of the country.
Riyadh also continues to fund various jihadist groups in Syria and is one of the largest financiers of terrorism in the world. Before his election, Trump claimed Saudi Arabia was behind the 9/11 attacks and the White House more recently insisted it would hold the kingdom responsible for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. However, as with unabated American support for the Saudi war in Yemen, these proclamations have fallen short.
The Saudi armed services are already a formidable force. Saudi Arabia spends the third most of any country in the world on the military, behind only the U.S. and China, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The Saudi military’s size is estimated at nearly a quarter-million active personnel, who are equipped with the most advanced weapons available.
Already seven of the 10 countries in the world with the highest military burden are in the Middle East. The development of nuclear weapons in Saudi Arabia has many speculating that it could mark the beginning of an even more dangerous era for the war-torn region.
Top Photo | U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One for Israe from Saudi Arabial, the next stop in his international tour, at King Khalid International Airport, Monday, May 22, 2017, in Riyadh. (AP/Evan Vucci)
Alan MacLeod is an academic and writer for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. His book, Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting was published in April.