Doomsday: Stopping a Middle East Nuclear Arms Race

Can sanctions prevent Saudi Arabia from building the bomb?

Imagine the imposition of financial sanctions on the central bank of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—the only Arab member of the G20 group of major economies. To this, add biting multinational trade sanctions to stop the the majority of Saudi Arabia’s oil production from being sold on international markets. If these measures seem preposterous, it is because they are. Yet American counter-proliferation policy in the Middle East may be premised on implementing this bizarre, nightmarish scenario.

During recent testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that “the best way” to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is through “the model that’s being set” via the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran. Blinken elaborated, saying that “I doubt any country would want to follow” the model set by Iran of “a decade or more of isolation and sanctions.” In short, the “answer” for how to prevent a Middle Eastern nuclear cascade “is exactly what we’ve been doing.”

Yet virtually every Sunni power in the region is moving to develop its nuclear power infrastructure, in part due to burgeoning domestic demand for electricity, but also in response to Iran’s nuclear program. Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, explained this month to the BBC that “whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same.” He noted that in particular, “if Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it’s not just Saudi Arabia that’s going to ask for that.”

In addition to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates are all embarking on nuclear energy crash programs. Experts believe several of these states have concluded that nuclear energy offers opportunities not just for domestic energy production but also for military purposes, so that they can “pick up some capabilities along the way.” Amman just reached a $10 billion deal with Russia to build Jordan’s first nuclear power plant, and the Russians signed a similar agreement to construct the Egyptians’ first plant when Putin visited Cairo in February. No doubt the Emiratis are regretting signing a 2009 U.S. agreement offering to forego the right to enrich uranium in exchange for American nuclear cooperation ever since Iran has effectively been granted a de facto right to domestic enrichment.

But the country that most feels itself in Iranian crosshairs is Saudi Arabia. The late Saudi King Abdullah once urged America to launch military strikes on Iran’s nuclear program to “cut off the head of the snake” and warned the United States point blank that “if they get nuclear weapons, we will get nuclear weapons.” Saudi King Salman is currently walking back his predecessor’s regional campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood in order to press the Brotherhood’s regional supporters—Turkey, Qatar, Sudan, and Hamas—to assist with his more immediate priority of confronting Iranian depredations in the region. The new Saudi-led military campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents in Yemen, code named Operation Decisive Storm, is the latest expression of the king’s resolve.