Saudi Arabia is reportedly asking for US help to develop its civilian nuclear programme, raising fears that the kingdom may seek to develop a nuclear weapon and accelerate an arms race with Iran.
Saudi officials want US support to enrich uranium and develop their own fuel production system, while Washington is in return seeking a normalisation with another Middle East ally, Israel, according to a new report by The Wall Street Journal.
The oil-dependent kingdom is looking to add nuclear power to its energy mix while, at the same time, being deeply wary of nuclear proliferation attempts by Tehran.
The conservative country has intensified security ties with Israel in recent years, with an eye to confronting Iran, and sees growing potential for business deals as the kingdom looks to diversify its economy away from oil.
However, it stopped short of signing the so-called Abraham Accords – negotiated under Donald Trump – that their Emirati neighbours have joined.
The nuclear talks between the US and Iran have been dormant since protests began in Iran in September.
One possibility under discussion, according to the Journal, is naming Saudi Arabia a major non-Nato ally, a special status given to Israel, Qatar, Jordan and other countries friendly to US interests. The move would make Saudi into a formal US ally and give it easier access to American weaponry.
A deal would mark a diplomatic victory for President Joe Biden, accelerating American efforts to create a regional military alliance to counter Iran.
However, the requests will be hard sells to the US, which wants Riyadh to commit to strict nuclear safeguards and is not particularly interested in becoming a shield for Saudi Arabia.
Mr Biden could face blow back at home both from Republicans and members of his own party. Many lawmakers in Congress remain deeply sceptical of Saudi’s reliability.
American and Israeli officials worry it would allow Saudi Arabia to develop a nuclear weapon and accelerate an arms race with Iran, whose nuclear programme is subject to a number of US sanctions.
“The nuclear issue is one of, if not the biggest challenge for Israel, and one Israelis should debate whether it’s worth the price for peace,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies specialising in Saudi-Israel relations, told the Journal.
In Saudi Arabia too, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler, has indicated that he wants to see significant support among Saudi citizens before he agrees to any deal, according to people who have met with him to discuss the issue.
According to a recent poll by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, when Saudis were asked if they openly support normalisation with Israel, only 5 per cent said “yes” in 2022.
The Crown Prince told a US media outlet in 2018 that “without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
The Islamic Republic insists the programme is peaceful. Iran said it reached 60 per cent uranium enrichment levels late last year, with weapons-grade uranium requiring 90 per cent enrichment.
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