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Paul Iddon

Trump must stop helping build a nuclear Saudi Arabia

Washington and Riyadh are negotiating for the construction of nuclear reactors in the kingdom [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 June, 2019

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Comment: If the US wants ease Middle East tensions, it should stop selling weapons and transferring expertise to Saudi Arabia, writes Paul Iddon.
The Trump administration's policy of letting Saudi Arabia buy whatever hi-tech weaponry it wants, and do whatever it wants with said weaponry, is reckless, short-sighted and could contribute to yet another major crisis in the Middle East.

In late May, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, using the tensions created by the latest standoff between the United States and Iran as his pretext, in order to sell an $8 billion arms package, consisting of 22 deals, to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

By declaring such an ill-defined national emergency he simultaneously circumvented Congress and exploited a legal loophole in the Arms Control Export Act. 

More broadly, Trump once again demonstrated his eagerness to give Saudi Arabia whatever it wants when it comes to arms sales.

As he himself admits, this is much more important than Riyadh's murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October, and the various human rights violations the Saudis and their allies have carried out in Yemen with US-supplied weapons.

Trump's emergency authorisation also permitted the arms firm Raytheon Company to help the Saudis build key components - ranging from control systems, circuit cards and guidance electronics - for their Paveway smart bombs.

As The New York Times noted, this has "raised concerns that the Saudis could gain access to technology that would let them produce their own versions of American precision-guided bombs - weapons they have used in strikes on civilians since they began fighting a war in Yemen four years ago."

The Trump administration is also delivering 120,000 such bombs that will enable the Saudis to add to existing stockpiles

The Trump administration is also delivering 120,000 such bombs that will enable the Saudis to add to existing stockpiles and continue its controversial bombing of Yemen for the foreseeable future.

This wasn't the only controversial transfer of technology the administration has made following Khashoggi's murder. Just over two weeks after that grisly incident in Istanbul the Trump administration granted two authorisations for US companies to provide sensitive information about nuclear power to Riyadh.

Also, six other secret authorisations allowing US companies to sell nuclear power technology to the Saudis were approved by the administration. These permitted those companies to do preliminary work in the kingdom before any deal is made with Riyadh.

[Click to enlarge]

These authorisations are part of a broader agreement Washington and Riyadh are negotiating for the construction of nuclear reactors in the kingdom. US companies are competing with several other countries who want a stake in this lucrative project.

Riyadh presently wants to build at least two nuclear reactors.

According to Reuters, the Saudis oppose US "measures that would prevent it from enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium, two potential pathways to making fissile material for nuclear weapons."

Riyadh presently wants to build at least two nuclear reactors

Trump's general record to date strongly suggests that he might well oppose restrictions on Saudi Arabia's nuclear ambitions, especially if doing so would prevent another country from winning the tender to build Riyadh's reactors.

The Saudis deny that they are seeking nuclear weapons. However, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman clarified in March 2018 that: "Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible."

Having nuclear infrastructure would obviously enable Saudi Arabia to do this much more quickly than having to start from scratch.

In the meantime, China has been helping Saudi Arabia expand its existing ballistic missile programme. Riyadh already possesses nuclear-capable DF-3A missiles that Beijing sold it back in the 1980s and has even displayed them for the public in April 2014.

Read more: When will bad press focus Congress' attention on Saudi Arabia?

Consequently, both Washington and Beijing could well be helping Riyadh establish the infrastructure and tools it might one day need to both build a nuclear weapon and deliver it to a target far beyond its own frontiers.

Trump's first visit abroad as president was tellingly to Saudi Arabia back in May 2017, when he signed a series of deals that he boasted were altogether worth $110 billion. Since then, however, the US had sold "only" $14.5 billion worth of arms to the kingdom as of last October.

Nevertheless, Trump clearly hopes to sell a lot more arms, without any restrictions on how they are used. This kind of policy could encourage more Saudi aggression in the region in the belief that the Americans will fully back them up, whether against the Houthis in Yemen or its arch enemy Iran.

Washington and Beijing could well be helping Riyadh establish the infrastructure and tools it might one day need to both build a nuclear weapon

There are some informative historical precedents from Iran that could serve as an apt warning about the risks involved in the current US policy.

In the 1960s the US implemented the Twitchell Doctrine that limited American arms sales to the shah of Iran. The Shah sought to buy every piece of military hardware he could, even before his military received the proper training needed to absorb and properly field each respective new weapon system.

The Americans reasonably worried about the effect the spending would have on the Iranian economy.

Washington did not want the shah to spend too much on military hardware at the direct expense of the country's economic growth and infrastructure. They feared that if he was allowed to do so, ordinary Iranians might become disillusioned if they saw no tangible improvement in their lives. The consequent social upheaval could then fatally destabilise the country.

"The Iranians were forced to go through an annual economic review," recounted the Ambassador at the time, Armin H. Meyers. "It was a rather humiliating thing for them to do, before they could buy - buy - fifty million dollars worth of military equipment."

This doctrine was completely scrapped under President Nixon, who essentially let the shah buy any conventional weapon system he desired.

As a result, Iran became one of the most well-equipped militaries in the region in the 1970s, aside from Israel, and was the only country the US ever sold highly sophisticated Grumman F-14 Tomcat air superiority jet fighters to.

The shah ordered 80 of these warplanes in a then historic $2 billion deal. As the historian Andrew Scott Cooper noted, Iran's total oil revenue for the fiscal year 1972-73 was $2.8 billion.

"The strain the orders placed on Iran's economy was incalculable," he noted.

At the same time, the shah also sought to build nuclear power plants, reasoning that his country's oil would eventually be depleted and that energy sources should be diversified sooner rather than later.

While it's unlikely he was actively seeking nuclear weapons at the time, the shah did nevertheless seek the infrastructure and technology to enable Tehran 
to build them in case Iran ever faced a major threat or was attacked.

As with the Saudis today, the shah did not want any American restrictions placed on Iran's nuclear programme.

Ultimately, the shah's manic arms build-up and his concurrent goal of rapidly transforming Iran into a developed and modern western-style nation, albeit without establishing an actual democracy, contributed to the outbreak of the Iranian revolution in 1979.

There is no reason not to believe that Saudi Arabia's similar manic arms buildup, regional adventurism and lofty goal of fundamentally changing the Saudi state and society through its Vision 2030 project might not backfire in a similar fashion.

Trump's current policies towards Riyadh, allowing its crown prince to buy and do whatever he pleases without any repercussions, and his adminisration's bellicose anti-Iran rhetoric, could already be sowing the seeds for another disaster in the already volatile Middle East.


Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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