Trump Caught between Saudi Nuclear Ambitions, Israeli Opposition

For some time, the US and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in serious talks to build a nuclear reactor for the Arab kingdom. Riyadh has an ambitious plan to build 16 reactors by 2030 that will cost $100 billion.

According to the schedule of the negotiations between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia, the US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry is set to lead a delegation to London, where he will meet the Saudi nuclear negotiators.

On the other side, initially and behind the scenes, the Israeli regime’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed opposition to the US nuclear cooperation with the oil-rich kingdom. He has recently, however, made his objection public when he voiced deep concerns of Tel Aviv and urged Washington to quit the negotiations.

The Trump administration, reportedly, rejected the Israeli regime’s demands, citing possible heading of the Saudis to the Russians and the Chinese to get help with the reactor building. Trump has declined to further comment on the case, and sources familiar with the issue said that the Israeli and American sides want to discuss the case more.

The massive Saudi nuclear program is in its infancy. The country in 2012 sealed a deal with China to get 16 reactors by 2030. Riyadh has said that it will need nuclear power plans as it tries to reduce reliance on oil and plans to secure economic development as part of its Vision 2030, unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016.

However, there is a consensus among the analysts that the oil-rich monarchy does not intend to use the nuclear energy peacefully. In earlier negotiations, it refused to sign any agreement that will deny it the right to enrich uranium on its soil despite the fact that the regime lacked the scientific and domestic prerequisites for uranium enrichment. Now the question is that will Donald Trump help Saudi Arabia with its ambitions, with the prior knowledge of Riyadh’s objective behind becoming a nuclear state?

The Saudi-American relations under the presidency of Trump became far warmer than under the former President Barack Obama thanks to the huge Saudi sweeteners to the new administration in the form of military and economic deals. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has been a significant ally of the US in the highly strategic and sensitive West Asia region. That provided the West, specifically the Americans, with a good justification to meet the monarchy’s technological, security, and military needs. But the young crown prince knows well that bonds between the Saudi regime and the West are not as strategic as to get Washington in full accordance with Riyadh’s ambitious nuclear plans.

The Saudi rulers, still, have a set of areas where they can offer privileges to the Americans: Offering to revive the US bankrupt industries that will lead to 10-year job creation, normalization of diplomatic relations with the Israeli regime, and very importantly supporting Trump’s recognition of al-Quds (Jerusalem) as the capital of the Israeli regime and so backing down on the Palestinians’ right to have their own independent state with Eastern al-Quds as its capital.

Considering Trump’s business-oriented approach to the international issues, bin Salman has embarked on a policy of pressure and appeasement. For example, he negotiated with Moscow and Beijing transfer of nuclear technology to the kingdom. He also made Western-eyed social reforms in the country in an effort to exhibit a novel and rational image of himself. These, the analysts maintain, can provide the grounds for Trump to give a green light to the kingdom’s demand to transform into a nuclear state by acquiring the technology of nuclear fuel cycle.

But their cooperation can be challenged by a series of obstacles. First of all, Trump administration cannot be simply provoked into a competition by Saudi Arabia’s invitation of the Russian, Chinese, and British companies to engage in the kingdom’s nuclear project. David Albright, the founder of the non-governmental Institute for Science and International Security and a former nuclear disarmament expert, a couple of years ago had said that Saudi Arabia made some attempts to work with Russia for uranium extraction. But it appeared that the Saudi show moves to stimulate the US sense of competition against Russia and China for a final win of Washington agreement for nuclear technology transfer fell flat. This was mainly because, Albright added, the ruling family in Saudi Arabia suffered from legitimacy crisis, something necessitating the US military and political backing. And further, the Saudi rulers know that even if China and Russia agree to help, without the US permission, they cannot build their own reactors.

On the other side, Prince Mohammed proceeds with the Arab-Israeli normalization project, something the Israelis urgently need to step out of seven-decade isolation and show off as an accepted state in the region. This presses Tel Aviv to show no worries about the Saudi-Western military agreements which do not run counter to the occupying regime’s vital interests. But that is not helpful with the nuclear issue because a nuclear Saudi Arabia will tip the scales of power and break Tel Aviv’s nuclear monopoly in the region.

Moreover, once Saudi Arabia becomes a nuclear state, the Israelis should expect similar ambitions by other regional states such as Egypt, Turkey, as well as the smaller regional states. So, Tel Aviv can make no risks in such a case that could result in an asymmetrical balance with risks of a nuclear war. Even there is a possibility of Arab-Israeli conflict this time in its unconventional form as the two sides’ ideological, historical, and geopolitical remain firmly standing. So, in the US, where the pro-Israeli lobbies hold a great sway, Trump administration and the other power institutions will put first the Israeli interests.

In terms of legitimacy gain efforts, apparently, the Saudi regime needs to reform its absolutely non-democratic political system and correct its behavior. Saudi Arabia is engaged in activities that portrays it as a destabilizing regime. Riyadh engagement in the 9/11 attacks on the US as the declassified documents show, direct and indirect support for such terrorist groups as ISIS and Al-Nusra Front, waging a full-scale war against neighboring Yemen that trigged a humanitarian crisis which is roundly condemned by the human rights groups and international organizations, and meddling in Syria all show that the region is dealing with a dangerous regime. The ongoing violations invalidate bin Salman’s claims about root reforms. This means that a nuclear Saudi Arabia will be extremely risky to the regional nations. The 13-item list of demands presented to Qatar by Saudi Arabia as a precondition for diplomatic rapprochement shows that Riyadh has adopted a bullying spirit and failed to respect the sovereignty of its ally Dohaw, while it is non-nuclear. Things could be worse if it was a nuclear state.

With regard to these factors, a Saudi-favored nuclear agreement looks highly unachievable. Instead, the kingdom will possibly be offered limited nuclear industry and enrichment facilities in a third country, echoing the model of UAE’s nuclear agreement. This has been partly observable in Netanyahu and Trump’s rhetoric.


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