Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has set out plans for Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons if Tehran makes the same move in the event of a collapse of the international nuclear deal signed in 2015.
The prospect of a Middle East nuclear arms race will unnerve European leaders who are urging Donald Trump to retain the Iran nuclear deal which imposed strict curbs on the Iranian nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief.
The Saudi crown prince is due in Washington on Monday, and is pressing the US to give it the reserved right to enrich uranium in return for Saudi Arabia choosing American nuclear technology.
“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,” bin Salman told CBS television.
Saudi Arabia wants initially to build two nuclear stations as part of its medium term program to wean itself off oil. It plans to build 16 civil nuclear stations over 20 to 25 years generating 16 gigawats of nuclear energy.
Although Saudi Arabia stresses it wants nuclear technology only for peaceful uses, it has left unclear whether it also wants to enrich uranium to produce nuclear fuel, a process which can be used in the production of atomic weapons.
US administration officials have already met bin Salman in London to discuss the terms of a deal.
Iran immediately hit back at the prince’s comments. “These words are worthless … because they come from a simple mind full of illusions who speaks only bitterness and lies,” said Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi.
Saudi Arabia, like Trump is a fierce opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, and US officials were due to meet their EU counterparts in Berlin on Thursday to discuss how to resolve their differences over whether the deal can be rescued.
Trump has given the EU until 12 May to come up with revisions to the deal, or see him pull out, reimposing full blown economic sanctions and provoking a full scale crisis with Tehran.
The EU signatories to the deal – UK, France and Germany – want to retain the deal, but are willing to discuss a supplementary memorandum that would seek to contain Iran’s ballistic missile program, one of Trump’s criticisms of the deal. Iran insists its ballistic program is separate to the 2015 deal.
A range of countries including Russia, the US, the UK, France and Japan have been offering to partner with Saudi’s nuclear plans, putting the crown prince in a position to negotiate with the US on any restrictions covering uranium enrichment rights in exchange for US nuclear support.
Reactors need uranium enriched to around 5% purity but the same technology in this process can also be used to enrich the heavy metal to a higher, weapons-grade level.
Simon Henderson, a Saudi expert at the Washington Institute for Near East said: “Can Saudi Arabia be persuaded to forsake, perhaps even temporarily, enrichment and reprocessing in return for choosing US technology for its ambitious nuclear power plans? The wrong business deal could undermine the current fragile status quo and elevate regional antagonisms to a new level”.