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Iran’s nuclear program seems to be accelerating. Will Saudi Arabia take a similar path?

In a multipolar world, curbing nuclear transfers becomes more difficult.

- July 12, 2019

Iran announced this week that it has surpassed the uranium-enrichment level allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal. This was Tehran’s response to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal and subsequent reimposition of harsh sanctions.

While most observers focus on the spiral of U.S. pressure and Iranian defiance, the situation has broader implications for nuclear programs elsewhere — specifically, whether Saudi Arabia could follow in Iran’s footsteps. Riyadh has vowed to match Iran’s nuclear capabilities, including the ability to enrich uranium and acquire nuclear weapons if Tehran gets the bomb. My research, recently published in International Security, explains how Riyadh’s ability to play nuclear suppliers off against one another can increase its chances of securing nuclear technology.

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Why is Saudi Arabia eyeing this capability?

Saudi Arabia considers Iran a mortal foe. The suspicion that Iran is building a bomb exacerbates the Saudis’ sense of threat. Tehran’s most recent moves will likely heighten that fear — and push Riyadh to accelerate the development of its nuclear program. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned, “Without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

For now, Saudi Arabia is focused on becoming what scholars call a nuclear “hedger” — a country without a dedicated nuclear weapons program that can weaponize relatively quickly, thanks to an advanced enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) capability. Iran has already achieved this status.

Hedging stems from the fact that the military and civilian uses of the atom are not completely separable. ENR facilities can fuel nuclear reactors and/or they can produce fissile material for a bomb. Hedging also allows countries to avoid the costs of a nuclear program, including international sanctions, as Iran knows only too well.

Won’t the great powers step in?

Wouldn’t the United States and other countries interested in stopping proliferation block Riyadh’s access to sensitive nuclear transfers, such as enrichment technology? It’s possible Saudi Arabia will be unable to acquire or develop the wherewithal for a nuclear weapon. But the nuclear market is changing in ways that facilitate proliferation.

There’s been a shift from a unipolar world, with the United States as the dominant power, to a world of several great powers, or multipolarity. Since 1975, the key instrument for curbing nuclear transfers has been the supplier cartel — the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), created by the United States in cooperation with the Soviets. The NSG forced suppliers to act in unison and incorporate the same guidelines into their individual nuclear export policies, restricting the sale of ENR and thus stemming proliferation.

Here’s the catch: The NSG’s ability to regulate supplier behavior depends on how many great powers are in the system and whether they agree to work together to limit proliferation. The emerging multipolar world and the growing rivalry among the United States, Russia and China is likely to weaken the NSG’s effectiveness. This could crack open the door to renewed supplier competition and broader access to sensitive nuclear technologies. And this lets countries interested in acquiring nuclear transfers, such as Saudi Arabia, pit suppliers against each other and secure better products, lower prices and more advantageous terms of use.

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As Matthew Fuhrmann explained here in the Monkey Cage, there remains debate over whether peaceful nuclear technology transfers lead to proliferation — but the risk of proliferation is high in the Saudi case.

Saudi Arabia has set its nuclear procurement train in motion

After failing to secure nuclear technology in the 1970s, Riyadh turned to the global market with renewed vigor in the mid-2000s — in both cases presumably because of a perceived Iranian nuclear threat. Recent efforts to exploit supplier competition seem to have paid off: In 2015, Saudi Arabia acquired a research reactor from Argentina, a steppingstone toward achieving the full nuclear fuel cycle capability.

Saudi authorities have also expressed an interest in nuclear power reactors and an enrichment plant. Reactors alone are not enough to build a nuclear weapon, but can provide cover for a nuclear weapons program or for hedging: Countries can claim they need ENR technology to fuel their research or power reactors, but instead use it to produce fissile material for a bomb.

Moving forward, Saudi Arabia can play several suppliers against one another to secure nuclear transfers. Countries such as France and South Korea have expressed an interest in selling nuclear technology to Riyadh for almost a decade. And Saudi Arabia has excellent relations with Pakistan, whose nuclear weapons program Riyadh allegedly helped finance in the 1970s. Fearing that other suppliers will get Saudi Arabia’s nuclear contracts, the United States, Russia and China have also begun courting Riyadh.

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There are few good options for dealing with Saudi Arabia’s nuclear procurement plans

Some analysts argue that the United States should transfer nuclear technology to the Saudis on the condition they adopt the “gold standard,” which would require the Saudi regime to forfeit its right to enrich or reprocess. The problem here is that other countries could make more lenient counteroffers.

Recognizing this issue, others propose that Washington should supply Saudi Arabia nuclear technology without the “gold standard” constraints, thus keeping a foot in the door and hopefully becoming well-positioned to limit Riyadh’s nuclear pursuits. But even this approach may prove too restricting for the Saudis. If Saudi Arabia concludes that the United States is encroaching on its nuclear ambitions, it can turn to other suppliers for more advantageous terms.

The Trump administration has embraced a more permissive nuclear transfers policy toward Saudi Arabia than the “no gold standard” approach — and has signaled its willingness to approve such transfers without congressional approval. As Fuhrmann explained, such an approach is particularly dangerous for containing the bomb.

The problem for those hoping to stop the further spread of nuclear weapons is that it’s hard to get the great powers to cooperate. Instead, the United States, Russia and China are developing their own unilateral policies on Saudi Arabia. With the 2015 nuclear deal unraveling and Iran accelerating its enrichment efforts, the future does not bode well for stopping Riyadh from going down the same path as Tehran.

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Eliza Gheorghe is a visiting fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) at the University of Hamburg and assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University. You can follow her at @gheorghe_eliza.