Over the past three months since the Trump administration imposed severe sanctions on Iran, which have significantly curbed its oil exports and exacerbated its economic crisis, tensions in the Gulf have escalated. Commercial vessels have been attacked, oil tankers seized and drones shot down. Despite these escalations, both sides are holding back and at least in the short-term, an open conflict so far seems unlikely.
In the long-term, however, the highly-problematic approach that the United States has adopted towards the nuclear issue could have devastating consequences. Two recent developments point in that direction.
First, the Trump administration has given a green light to US companies to work on nuclear projects in Saudi Arabia. According to a report recently released by the US Congress Oversight Committee, “with regard to Saudi Arabia, the Trump Administration has virtually obliterated the lines normally separating government policymaking from corporate and foreign interests.”
The report also stated that the evidence collected and analyzed “raise serious questions about whether the White House is willing to place the potential profits of the President’s friends above the national security of the American people and the universal objective of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.”
The White House seems committed to allowing the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology without demanding that Riyadh abide by US legal requirements not to engage in activities that can lead to nuclear proliferation.
Second, in response to mounting pressure from the US, Iran has announced that it is going to backtrack on a number of commitments made under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if the international community does not take measures to ameliorate the effects of US sanctions on its economy.
Iran has already stopped complying with limits on the production of enriched uranium and heavy water, invoking articles 26 and 36 of the agreement, which entitle it to do so if the other parties reintroduce nuclear-related sanctions.
Thus, Washington’s incapacity to deal with the Iranian file in a coherent manner, and its erratic policies on nuclear proliferation, are pushing the Middle East towards a dangerous nuclear competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The nuclear aspirations of both countries are not new. Iran’s nuclear programme began during the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, with the 1967 opening of the Center for Nuclear Research in Tehran along with an experimental 5 MW reactor built using US technology.
One year later, Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and, in 1973, created the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation, which drew the first nuclear programme and planned the first nuclear power plant in Bushehr with German technology. A broad nuclear cooperation memorandum between Iran and the US was signed in 1975.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in developing nuclear-related research also started in the 1960s but had modest potential until the late 1970s, when the King Abd Al-Aziz Center for Science and Technology (KAACST) was established in Riyadh and the kingdom started studying the possibility of opening nuclear plants. Saudi Arabia eventually signed the NPT in 1988.
In 2017, under the leadership of King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Riyadh became serious about building a nuclear reactor and started contemplating a tender, which the Americans are now hoping to win.
In the past, there have been allegations that both Iran and Saudi Arabia tried to illicitly acquire nuclear technology from the same provider – Pakistan. In 2007, Iran admitted it purchased blueprints from Pakistani scientist AQ Khan in the 1990s, Saudi Arabia continues to deny the accusation.
Because of these suspicions, both countries have been subjected to inspections by the IAEA. In the case of Saudi Arabia, however, due to the modest size of its nuclear programme, it has had to comply only with the Small Quantities Protocol (SQP) during inspections.
By contrast, Iranian facilities have been under heavy scrutiny since the 1990s mainly by the US. This despite the fact that, at times, Iran voluntarily implemented the safeguard agreements reached during nuclear negotiations with the EU-3 between 2003 and 2005, as a confidence-building measure.
Under Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, nuclear research began again, which caused the United Nations Security Council to sanction Iran with several resolutions from 2006 to 2012. When President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013, Iran’s approach to the nuclear issue changed drastically and it went back to serious negotiations with the US and the European Union.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration considered the possible transfer of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia but ultimately decided not to sign the 123 agreement with Riyadh, after it failed to agree to non-proliferation guarantees.
The success and failure of the Iran nuclear deal
The 2015 JCPOA was meant to dampen Iranian (and indirectly Saudi) nuclear ambitions and bring a peaceful solution to a long-term nuclear controversy through multilateral diplomacy. It, however, failed to reassure Saudi Arabia that the Iranian threat has been subdued.
Many officials, including high ranking members of the Saudi royal family such as the Prince Turki al Faisal, openly criticised the deal and warned that it could trigger a nuclear race in the region.
This narrative was reinforced by the new direction Trump imposed on US foreign policy, legitimising Saudi aspirations for a full nuclear programme and opening the doors for the transfer of sensitive technology that could be used to produce a nuclear device.
It is important to note that, while Iran always denied its interest in having nuclear weapons, despite any real external threat from neighbouring countries or the US, Saudi Arabia’s MBS and other high officials admitted that they would pursue a nuclear weapon if Tehran acquired one.
Iran has been careful about the declared goals of its nuclear programme and, as both the IAEA and US intelligence agencies have confirmed, it has not directed any part of its nuclear research to achieving military goals. However, it is possible that “maximum pressure” from the US and the possibility of a US nuclear technology transfer to Saudi Arabia could motivate some sectors of the political establishment to consider having a military nuclear capacity as a deterrent against any future foreign aggression.
A collapsing nonproliferation regime
With its ill-advised policies in the Gulf, the Trump administration is not only encouraging a nuclear race in the region by allowing Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear technology, but it is also undermining the international non-proliferation regime.
Since nuclear powers agreed in the 1960s to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, there have been a number of cases in which countries – including Israel, India, and Pakistan – have broken international rules in pursuit of nuclearisation and not faced serious consequences.
The double standards applied by the Trump administration have been particularly damaging to international nonproliferation agreements. Trump has pursued normalisation of relations with North Korea – a state that openly tested and detonated nuclear devices – while withdrawing from a nuclear deal with Iran, which was strictly abided by all provisions and was not working on developing a nuclear bomb.
Effectively, the US government destroyed a well-functioning agreement that enjoyed wide international support in order to satisfy the commercial interests of a few individuals close to the White House and give an advantage to one side in the growing regional rivalry in the Middle East.
These actions have thrown the international community into disarray, as now there appears to be no clear consensus on what nuclear activities can be considered a threat, what evidence state actors must present to be regarded as truly committed to nonproliferation and what instruments – legal, economic, or military – should be used to enforce the nonproliferation regulations.
Washington’s unilateral (mis)management of the nuclear issue is endangering the whole nonproliferation regime, weakening any multilateral agreement or negotiation, and leaving solely the White House to decide on how to deal with these abovementioned questions.
In the current volatile situation in the Middle East – with intensifying confrontation along religious, ethnic, territorial and ideological cleavages – the lack of a robust non-proliferation agreement will encourage a nuclear race in the region and increase the chances of pre-emptive military attacks that could lead to large-scale war.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.