Concern about a nuclear arms race is fuelled by uncertainty over the future of Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement, a seeming US willingness to weaken its strict export safeguards in pursuit of economic advantage, and a willingness by suppliers such as Russia and China to ignore risks involved in weaker controls.
The Trump administration was mulling loosening controls to facilitate a possible deal with Saudi Arabia as Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu prepared, in an address this week to a powerful Israeli lobby group in Washington, to urge US President Donald J. Trump to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal unless the Islamic republic agrees to further military restrictions and makes additional political concessions.
Israel has an undeclared nuclear arsenal of its own and fears that the technological clock is working against its long-standing military advantage.
The US has signalled that it may be willing to accede to Saudi demands in a bid to ensure that US companies with Westinghouse in the lead have a stake in the kingdom’s plan to build by 2032 16 reactors that would have 17.6 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity.
In putting forward demands for parity with Iran by getting the right to controlled enrichment of uranium and the reprocessing of spent fuel into plutonium, potential building blocks for nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia was backing away from a 2009 memorandum of understanding with the United States in which it pledged to acquire nuclear fuel from international markets.
While Israeli opinion is divided on how the US should respond to Saudi demands, Messrs Trump and Netanyahu’s opposition to the Iranian nuclear accord has already produced results that would serve Saudi interests.
European signatories to the agreement are pressuring Iran to engage in negotiations to limit its ballistic missile program and drop its support for groups like Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah and Houthi rebels in Iran. Iran has rejected any renegotiation but has kept the door open to discussions about a supplementary agreement. Saudi Arabia has suggested it may accept tight US controls if Iran agreed to a toughening of its agreement with the international community.
Saudi officials have repeatedly insisted that the kingdom is developing nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes such as medicine, electricity generation, and desalination of sea water. They said Saudi Arabia is committed to putting its future facilities under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Furthermore, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir recently raised the stakes by declaring that the kingdom was engaged in talks with ten nations about its nuclear program, including Russia and China, nations that impose less stringent safeguards but whose technology is viewed as inferior to that of the United States.
To strengthen its position, Saudi Arabia has added Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, an international law firm specialised in energy regulation, to its army of lobbyists and public relations firms in Washington, in a bid to ensure it gets a favourable agreement with the United States.
These are concerning and uncertain times in the global arms race, and only time will tell whether the policy decisions of world superpowers will unify the international community, or make the gap between the West and the Middle East larger.