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Nuclear Saudi Arabia

Helmut Sorge | Posted : December 17, 2018


Lindsey Graham dreamed of being elected President of the United States, some years ago. He failed. The influential and seasoned Senator from South Carolina was a merciless critic of Donald Trump, but recently Graham defended his nationalist and popular policies and fought, among other issues, immigration, with verbal venom publicly for the appointment of the contested supreme court candidate Brett Kavanaugh. Trump could count on Graham’s vote in congress—until    the news   shook   the   political establishment in Washington that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the future king and de facto ruler, was  accused of being involved  in murder.  A bloody mess indeed, an incredible drama, worth a Hollywood thriller, with political and military consequences yet to grasp in its dimensions and geopolitical consequences.

Suddenly, the senator changed his tone, because for the conservative politician, the Royal was “on a bad track,” a “wrecking ball.” On TV, the Republican pointed into the distance, towards the desert kingdom and stated: “The guy has to go, Saudi Arabia, if you are listening. There’s a lot of good people you can choose, but MBS has tainted your country and tainted himself.” Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House advisor, spoke on the phone to the beleaguered prince, and exchanged text messages, encouraging the 33-year-old friend to ignore the media and other critics and instead trust the loyalty of the American President and himself. The US head of state is obviously  convinced that all relationships are transactional, based on which foreign nations buy the most weapons, and moral or human rights considerations must be sacrificed to the higher cause-power, money. Ego. America first. A President, the New York Times judged on its front page, documenting “that raw, mercantilist calculations” should guide the United States’ decision about the Middle East and the wider world: “American jobs outweigh American values.”


Donald Trump did not utter a word of sorrow about the dismemberment of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi consulate in  Istanbul, choosing clearly money above moral, viewing foreign policy as a series of business deals, stripped of values and idealism. “The American president,” deplored the New York Times “could not even summon a modicum of lip service to condemn the abomination of dispatching a 17-member hit team equipped with a bone saw to throttle and dismember Mr. Kashoggi for daring to criticize the crown prince." Saudi Arabia, Lindsey Graham argued, “is a strategic ally and the relationship is worth saving,” but not at all costs : “I cannot support arms deals to Saudi Arabia as long as he’s going to be in charge of this country.”

Graham asked for a private briefing by the CIA director Gina Haspel, whose agents and analysts suggested that the future king, who was indeed involved in the assassination, [was also] certainly an instigator. The White House refused and sent the secretary of state Mike Pompeo, a former CIA director, and the secretary of defense, former general James Norman Mattis, to congress to argue that there was no clear evidence to prove the prince was tied to the deadly conspiracy. Mattis: “There is no smoking gun.” Trump friend Graham threatened to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia” and swore he would never visit the country again as long the prince was in power. “You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this (murder) was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of MBS and that he was involved in the demise of Mr. Kashoggi.”


After a senate majority voted to ask for the suspension of American support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and Graham, in his own words “pissed” about the White House, threatened further actions. Trump worried about losing support of loyalists like Graham in the senate, suddenly, a day later, authorized a direct briefing by the CIA director. Ten leading senators, among them the senate minority leader of the Democrats, were informed about highly classified and secret findings by the intelligence service, resulting in further damage to the reputation of the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia: “He murdered him, no question in my mind,” declared senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “the crown prince directed the murder and was kept apprised of the situation all the way through.” Lindsey Graham confirmed: “I think he’s complicit to the highest level possible. There is no smoking gun. There’s a smoking saw.”

Lindsey Graham announced that he will push legislation to sanction Mohammed bin Salman and other high level Saudis involved in the assassination, and the Republican promised a non-binding resolution in Congress naming MBS as responsible for Kashoggi’s death. “Mohammed bin Salman can never be a world leader on the world stage,” Graham said, “he is toxic.” Not for all world leaders it seems-during the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires the  prince, at war in Yemen, and Vladimir Putin, in battle with Ukraine, exchanged high fives, the happy hand clapping athletes perform after triumph and victory. A royal message to Washington perhaps, we are not isolated but can rely on alternatives, Moscow for example, or China, among dozens of nations competing these months for Riyadh’s favors and billions provided for the nuclear energy program. South Korea, Japan, France, Russia, the US, even Finnish nuclear experts from the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, nuclear experts from Kazakhstan and Hungary, the world of science and technology, united, at times, to move Saudi Arabia from oil to nuclear electricity, powering the desalination stations and provide, in a decade, 20 percent of its electricity, through nuclear advance.


The drama of the prince, who unwillingly promoted the bone saw into a new symbol of power and repression, touches the kingdom in a sensitive phase of choices and decisions, blanketing the seemingly bright future with dark clouds and skepticism. Will the son of the king manage to survive in  power, or will he, eventually, be forced to resign if the pressure in Washington (except from the White House) and in the kingdom itself, will develop into a dramatic ending, an Arab Goetterdaemmerung ? Even prior to the incomprehensible assassination of the Saudi dissident, Washington was contemplating whether to get involved in the development of Saudi Arabia’s  civilian nuclear program, initially estimated to cost 80 billion dollars plus.

For the time being, only two nuclear reactors are planned-- a dramatic reduction from the 25 announced. The depression of oil prices are certainly one of the reasons for the change of plans. The  Toshiba-owned US Company, Westinghouse, is one of the bidders, which, if awarded the offer, will have to partially finance the project. But the declaration by Riyadh in the past, for example in 2012, and recently by the crown prince on the US TV channel CBS, that the arming of Iran with a nuclear bomb would force the Kingdom to obtain its own nukes, has alerted the major powers, particularly  since the present de facto leader hasn’t shown much balance and restrain in world affairs. The construction of nuclear power stations for civilian use is in itself  not a problem, but Riyadh insists on extracting its own uranium (of which 60,000 tons are estimated in Saudi soil ) and, more problematic, producing its own fuel. If uranium is enriched to 4 percent purity, it can fuel a power plant, at 90 percent it can be used to produce a nuclear bomb. The kingdom may not want to wait until Iran feels forced to restart its military nuclear program. For Riyadh, the time is now. If successful, in a few years Saudi Arabia would be the 10th nuclear weapon state on the globe. One of its neighbors and allies, the UAE, which is expecting four South Korean build civilian nuclear reactors to be on line by the end of 2019 (or early 2020), will import its fuel and will allow inspectors on their sites to control the application of the nonproliferation agreement.


The Saudis, signatories of the Nonproliferation treaty, which implies “not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons,” are unwilling to sign the so-called 1 2 3 Agreement, which allows surprise inspections in suspected nuclear facilities. The warning by MBS on CBS, “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.” This would possibly activate nuclear proliferation of the Middle East; entice even war torn Syria, whose last attempt to build a nuclear reactor took a violent turn more than a decade ago.

In 2003, the Bush administration created the “Proliferation Security Initiative,” through which more than 100 countries (China is not a member) promised to coordinate intelligence and prohibition efforts to prevent the smuggling of components for weapons of mass destruction. Another step to prevent the spread of military nuclear warheads: the ratification of the so called “Additional Protocol” of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which mandates that signatories permit inspectors to enter any nuclear facility on demand, allowing them to search for illegal activities, as for example the enrichment of uranium for military use. Saudi Arabia has declined to sign the protocol, as have Syria and Egypt, documenting potential interest of obtaining the A- bomb. In 2020, the United Nations will host the next NPT conference, where all member states will meet to discuss how to improve non-proliferation agreements. Presently, Egypt is having nuclear reactors build by the Russian firm Rosatom in a 30 billion dollar project. 

Decades ago, Iraq attempted to build their own military nuclear reactor, their project, allegedly, financed by Saudi Arabia (five billion dollars), for which Riyadh expected nuclear warheads in return-if needed. Saddam Hussein confirmed the deal, the Saudis denied. In the late ‘70s or early ‘80s Saddam Hussein  sent a number of senior nuclear scientists to prison because he deemed them insufficiently loyal. Not more encouraging were the reports from Libya’s nuclear bomb project. Program managers imported the wrong nuclear components because they did not consult scientists first, and no one monitored progress. When International Atomic Agency experts inspected Libya’s nuclear sites in 2003, they found smuggled-in centrifuges still in their packing crates. North Korea received illicit assistance from a proliferation network run by the Pakistani nuclear physicist A.Q. Khan (providing centrifuges to enrich uranium) and were delivered important components by other suppliers, as Ukraine companies, which equipped North Korea with high performance liquid propellant rocket engines. Sure, Riyadh has denied any involvement in the development of the Pakistani nuclear weapons arsenal as well, despite details revealed in the London's Guardian, whereas 60 percent of the Pakistani investment was provided by Riyadh. If in need, five to six nuclear warheads would be available to its benefactors in an apparent quid pro quo. 


Can the crown prince of Saudi Arabia still be trusted; whose explanations of Kashoggi’s disappearance would make the authors of “One Thousand and One Nights” blush? Has his government answered the question where the killers deposed the Kashoggi body? If a body still existed after the encounter in the consulate -- acid comes to mind. How would critics of the Saudi crown prince react if asked to answer a question (having been used on the shady US President Richard Nixon): “Would you buy a used car from him?” Intelligence services like Israel’s Mossad and London’s MI 6 had noted, years ago, that Riyadh had acquired from China CSS-5 intermediate ballistic missiles (2500 km), capable of carrying 250 or 500 kilotons nuclear warheads. Perhaps there was a project, a dream, but no crown prince ready to put a nuclear button on his desk, just like the dictator in North Korea. If Riyadh would attempt a secret, illegal, development of the bomb, it would not be the first autocracy which signed the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and tried to ignore the rules. Indeed, in the past Iran was caught as a cheater as was North Korea, Iran, Romania, Taiwan, Syria, Libya and South Korea. Australia and Sweden attempted nuclear weapon programs, just as Brazil and Egypt, but these nations abandoned their projects.

“We have never before contemplated, let alone, concluded, a nuclear cooperation agreement with a country that was threatening to leave the nonproliferation treaty, even provisionally,” confirmed William Tobey, a senior official in the Energy Department during the George W. Bush administration, who has testified about the risks of a nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia. Congress has to approve any nuclear deal Trump is preparing with Riyadh, a task not made easier by the Kashoggi assassination. “It is one thing to sell them planes,” stated Brad Sherman, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “but another to sell them nukes, or the capacity building them.” Recently, the Californian Democrat introduced a law that would make it more difficult for Trump to reach a deal with Riyadh. “A country that can’t be trusted with a bone saw, should not be trusted with nuclear weapons” (Sanger & Broad, New York Times, 2018).


How will the global community react if Iran, choked by international sanctions, decides to reactivate its bomb making know how? No question, an arms race in the Middle East would be likely to unfold—at the end, Israel, which began operating a plutonium production reactor in 1963, would not be the only nation in the region armed with nuclear weapons anymore—Israel has stored between 100 and 160 atomic weapons in its arsenal, according to an estimate by the Washington based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. How would the Jewish state react to a bomb controlled by the Arab enemy? Would Riyadh propose a deal to Israel? Suddenly, the murder in Istanbul haunts the Saudi kingdom, the “killing of a dissident muddles a nuclear deal” read a headline in the New York Times. Now Riyadh, and its sponsor in Washington, is facing a Tehran dilemma. The Iranians also refused access to the international inspectors, but relented under pressure of sanctions.

For years their construction of a vast, secret, underground plant for enriching uranium, caused deep suspicion among the nuclear superpowers. Tehran, as Riyadh today, consistently denied any interest in building nuclear weapons. In 2015, the governing mullahs agreed, in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions, to decommission its plutonium-producing reactor and to limit its refining of uranium to no more than the level needed to fuel power plants. It seems almost certain that the Iranians lived up the deal, but Trump threw it in the wastebasket of history. The Saudi’s, his preferred Arabs, had pressured him to act on Tehran and promised, in exchange, to buy more than one hundred billion  worth of arms and industrial products-possibly an inflated, invented figure since documents prove that the Saudis so far ordered weapons worth 14 billion. Too much temptation, too little ethic or moral in the president’s cultural reservoir, only the cynical sense for a deal, a better, if needed, a crooked deal. There is little evidence to Nina Tannenwald , author of The Nuclear Taboo :The United States and the Non Use of Nuclear Weapons since 1945 that Trump cares about the non-use proliferation or disarmament. The US president even encouraged South Korea and Japan to arm themselves with nukes.


The Trump administration was certain, Iran could never be trusted with any weapons-making technology. Now, the US administration must decide whether to draw the same line for the Saudis. The bone saw and the nuclear bomb are threatening to upset the harmony between Washington and Riyadh. Trump needs a PR gesture by MBS, a potential -- even theoretical -- deal for 16 (or 25) nuclear power stations, more or less, to explain to his electorate that the Saudis unfortunately, now and then, exaggerate in controlling their dissidents. But this young and courageous Arab leader, MBS, keeps his promises, delivering jobs and money to make America great again, but just forgot where his hit team hid the body of Mr. Kashoggi, another journalist spreading fake news. So far, the US, France and Japan, major nuclear exporters, refuse to transfer enrichment and reprocessing technologies to Saudi Arabia, or other nation-scheming, possibly, to use civilian nuclear reactors to deviate to weapon fuel. The Saudis have warned Washington, if it should refuse to transfer enrichment equipment to them, other nations would. A problematic piece of Realpolitik for Trump.

To head off imagined and real dangers that would result from nuclear proliferation, Washington and its allies have imposed devastating sanctions on countries as Iraq and North Korea, and even launched a war of aggression, camouflaged as a preemptive strike. “That intervention alone, aimed at destroying Saddam Hussein’s imagined weapons of mass destruction,” deplores John Mueller, Senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Atomic obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to al Qaeda “killed more people than did the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” The imagined act of counter-proliferation in Iraq, born in imagination and manipulation, was considered by George W. Bush, the President, as a warning: “The United States of America will not permit the world‘s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the most dangerous weapons of the world.” A nuclear Iraq was considered in Washington as “unacceptable” because it would “hold (its) neighbors hostage.”

What about a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia, which under its erratic crown prince has decimated the picturesque, world forgotten, Yemen into a nation of ruins, just because rebels without real cause, stooges of Tehran, were threatening Saudi Arabian borders. Human principles ?  Dignity?  Humanity, all sacrificed for power until now, when conservative senators like Lindsey Graham and the majority of his colleagues, demanded the United States to cease its support for the fight of the pitiless allies and strategic American  partners active in Yemen, without scruple or remorse.

An estimated 15,000 nuclear weapons are stored in the arsenals of global power and no end in sight. Washington is moving towards trillions of dollars to renew outdated or invent even more deadly weapons, pressuring Russia into expenditures difficult to finance. These two countries alone control about 90 percent of all nuclear war heads and it is true that the United States nuclear arsenal is slated to be upgraded, at the cost of 1.7 trillion dollars during the next 30 years. Mind you, Washington did spend between 5-to-10 trillion dollars during the Cold War to keep the Soviet Union in a defensive position. India and Pakistan are locked in dangerous rivalry, expanding and upgrading their arsenals, researched Nina Tannenwald, who predicts that if current trends continue, the combined stockpiles of nuclear weapons in China, India and Pakistan could grow by around 250 warheads over the next ten years, from about 560 to more than 800. The dream of disarmament now seems more distant than ever. “Today there is another reason to worry about nuclear weapons,” writes Scott D. Sagan, a Political Science professor at California's Stanford University, in the December issue of Foreign Affairs, and that is “the rise of personalist dictatorships in states that possess or could acquire the bomb”-as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.


“These dictatorships,” argues the author, “differ from other autocratic governments because their leaders have such dominant personal power that other state institutions, such as parties, politburos or military officers, cannot overrule the decisions made at the top. Personalist dictators can make decisions on a whim, which creates a grave challenge to the concept of nuclear stability.”

Sagan remembers only one period in recent history during which the world faced similar danger—between  1949  and  1953, when Joseph Stalin, the dictator, enjoyed unchallenged personal dominion over a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Today, “thanks to North Korea’s breakthrough, the world faces a future in which unpredictable, unconstrained personalist dictators might hold the fate of millions of people in their hand.”

North Korea’s success in obtaining nuclear weapons before Washington or its allies could or wanted to react, may inspire other dictators,” predicts Sagan: “Other governments may calculate that they can copy the North Korean model, especially if Pyongyang offers to carry them across the nuclear threshold,” as it has attempted to do at least once- in 2007. The North Koreans were caught helping Bashar el Assad’s regime construct a secret plutonium-producing reactor in the Syrian Desert, which the Israeli Air Force destroyed.  “Personalist dictatorships elsewhere,” believes Sagan, “are more likely to seek nuclear weapons in the future, and, if they get them, more likely than other leaders to use them.”


No word on MBS. Memories of the bone saw for the time being are overshadowing dreams of a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia. No more in the shadow of Israel, no fear of Iran. Power to the Prince. All the power if he is ever promoted to be king. IF. Other nations may be in possession of nukes before Riyadh. Turkey? A rival in the Middle East. An ally of the emir of Qatar, the enemy of the crown prince. Another one. How will MBS react if Tehran presents its ballistic missiles, armed with nuclear warheads? Parading them in Istanbul, the final destination of the Saudi dissident, who wrote history while dead? Only Washington can really help the crown prince overcome his depression and a possible isolation, the beloved American president, who sees no guilt, forgives murder, pardons criminal advisors, keeping them out of jail if the screams of mercy reach his desk in the Oval Office. Enough to soon invite the crown prince to a state visit in Washington, arranging a secret meeting with Lindsey Graham on Trump’s Palm Beach estate. Hardly imaginable, but Trump is Trump. The United States, proposed political scientist Sagan, “needs to tailor its nuclear doctrine to better deter rogue, nuclear hungry, leaders, and, if necessary, to fight and defeat them more effectively and ethically.” The professor did not write about MBS, but rather KJU, since the North Korean dictator is armed to kill, possibly fanatic enough to hit his nuclear button. The nuclear desire of dictators, the fight of keeping them away from the deadly weapons, writes Sagan, is “daunting.” Careful handling and creative policymaking “might contain the situation, but Washington is not providing either.”

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