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A Bigger Problem with Saudi Arabia

A disturbing story in today’s New York Times focused upon Saudi Arabia’s negotiations with the United States to purchase the plans to build its own nuclear reactors, ostensibly for the peaceful purpose of providing electrical energy. Since the manufacturer would likely be Westinghouse, an American company, although the real manufacturing might be done in South Korea under a Westinghouse license, such a deal is seen by Energy Secretary Perry and others in the White House as a win for the American economy. The downside is that the Saudis insist that they make their own nuclear fuel, which means the possibility of producing enriched uranium that could be used in weapons. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has already said that if Iran produces a nuclear weapon, he will also.

Putting aside the wisdom and the question of the right of any country adding nuclear power to its energy production infrastructure, the global issue that is raised is the wisdom and the right of another country arming itself with nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and arming itself would be a violation of that treaty. 

The problem is deciding what should be done when a country is in an adversarial relationship with another country that has nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia and Iran are sworn enemies and, have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen, which has involved Iranian-backed rebels shooting non-nuclear missiles into Saudi Arabia. The Middle East is volatile and more nuclear weapons are the last things that are needed (right now Israel is the only nuclear-armed country in the region). The problem is that, if one party in an adversarial relationship that involves military threats develops nuclear weapons the other party feels bound to do the same in order to achieve a détente, based on mutually assured destruction.

The United States, in concert with other world leaders, thought it had an agreement with Iran that would have prohibited it developing enriched nuclear fuel and the means to build a bomb for at least 15 years. That agreement is no longer in place, and the U.S. sanctions against Iran that it ended have been resumed. In the Saudi’s mind, Iran is more of threat than before.

Control of the spread of nuclear weapons only works if it is based on international cooperation both between the most developed countries, most of which are nuclear-armed, and developing countries that are considering the nuclear pathway. 

For sure, this is a situation in which a short-term transactional strategy is not the best approach. President Trump has, in the past floated the idea of arming South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons to offset threats from North Korea and China to those countries, but since that time has apparently thought better of it. The U.S. should not consider arming Saudi Arabia as a counter to an armed Iran (as we already do with non-nuclear arms). We also should not base our actions on the argument that whatever we don’t sell Saudi Arabia will be sold to them by China or Russia, so we lose because they still could become nuclear-armed, and we lose billions of dollars in business. This is the explicit argument being used to justify massive non-nuclear arms sales to Saudi Arabia, those arms being used in costly and inhumane wars such as Yemen.

The U.S. can assist Saudi Arabia in building non-lethal nuclear energy plants, but to do so requires that we attach rigid strings to any deals with them—strings such as inspections of their facilities, and probably even prohibition of manufacturing their own fuel. In order for us to make such demands, we need to know that other countries, notably China and Russia, and to a lesser extent, Pakistan and North Korea, do not offer them nuclear assistance without such controls. This means strengthening our cooperation with nuclear-armed or nuclear-sophisticated countries that are part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so that none of us does anything that increases the risk of nuclear war. This is an arena where we can’t afford to see China and Russia as rivals, where America First has no place, and where everyone agrees that neither economic success nor strategic jockeying for influence outweighs global safety.  

I hope to God that both our own and other world leaders keep this in mind. This is an issue that deserves strong bipartisan political and ordinary citizen support for the basic principles of curbing the threat of nuclear war and stopping nuclear proliferation.

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