Bloomberg reported last week that Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear reactor is nearing completion. It purchased the reactor from the Argentinian company, INVAP. But construction and installation of the plant has proven a huge payday for companies in several European countries and the U.S.
After the Obama administration hesitated to support the project, Trump offered full-throated support. One of the most attractive propositions in the deal for him was the lucrative contracts for U.S. businesses who participated.
The reactor is one of the crowning achievements of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka “the Headchopper”) in his plan to “modernize” and “reform” the Saudi Arabian economy and military. Part of his ambition has been to project his country’s power and interests in more muscular fashion in the region. One of the ways he did this was to invade Yemen and rain terror upon the Houthi regions of that country killing 100,000 Yemenis and starving even more with a crippling blockade.
Saudi Arabia’s chief regional rival has been Iran. The purpose of the reactor is to send a loud and clear message that Iran’s nuclear ambitions will be met step-for-step by MBS. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, the Crown Prince wants to be right behind. The problem with this approach is that Iran, which has not made such a weapon though it could have if it wanted, has pursued a careful, calibrated approach. While the Saudis have pursued a reckless, aggressive approach in every operation they undertake to project their military power.
If they can decimate Yemen as they have, sinking themselves into a costly quagmire, why would anyone think they would use the products of their nuclear reactor in any more responsible way? Does MBS’s order to murder Jamal Khashoggi, cut his body into pieces and disappear it in acid, give anyone confidence that he wouldn’t be willing to do the same to entire countries he saw as implacable enemies?
Iran has never threatened to use nuclear weapons. Just the opposite, Ayatollah Khamenei has issued a fatwa declaring them forbidden. MBS, despite the fact that his country is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Pact, would never swear off such weapons. In fact, the moment that he has the ability to build and deliver WMD will likely be the day he threatens to use it.
Every party which collaborated with the Saudis in this project will have blood on their hands when (not if) that country becomes nuclear-capable.
Only a decade ago, the Obama administration supported a regional conference planned to promote a Middle East nuclear-free zone. Israel, with its 200 nuclear weapons, objected strenuously and the idea died of neglect. There will come a time in the near future when the world will regret this tragically-missed opportunity.
Despite boilerplate statements that the reactor is for civilian power and research purposes, mark my words: Saudi Arabia’s nuclear reactor will eventually lead to a Saudi nuclear weapon. That weapon will exponentially increase the likelihood it will be used someday. Again, not “if,” but “when.”
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.