WASHINGTON – Who was sitting next to US President Donald Trump during his Tuesday luncheon with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman? Not his national security adviser, nor his secretary of defense, nor his top diplomat, but Rick Perry, his energy secretary – fresh off talks in London over the kingdom’s ambitions for a robust nuclear program.
Until now, the Trump administration has kept quiet on Riyadh’s desire for a domestic nuclear infrastructure – and has declined to outline the president’s views on its potential development of nuclear arms. But during their visit to Washington this week, the Saudis were less timid.
“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we would follow suit as soon as possible,” the prince said in an interview.
His foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, used the same language days later.
White House officials say that Iran’s nuclear program, governed by a deal widely considered within the region as flawed, topped the agenda of Trump’s meetings with Muhammad. But descriptions of their day of meetings did not reference any discussion on energy.
Now they are acknowledging those talks included critical discussions about Saudi’s nuclear aspirations – and the inseparable effects of the deal with Iran on nuclear proliferation throughout the wider Middle East.
“We continue to engage with our Saudi partners on their plans for a civil nuclear program and possible US supply of nuclear equipment and material,” said one National Security Council representative, asked whether the talks, which included Perry, focused on the Saudi nuclear program. The official declined to comment on the prince’s threat to build nuclear weapons.
The US is considering whether to allow Riyadh to enrich its own uranium domestically using US-made equipment, in exchange for permitting US-based energy companies to construct and operate nuclear reactors in the kingdom.
At issue is the US Atomic Energy Act, which requires nations accepting and operating US nuclear material and equipment to vow not to use those resources to construct nuclear bombs.
Riyadh, however, is not prepared to make this commitment, as evidenced in comments to the American press made by Muhammad and Jubeir while in Washington this week.
Visiting the city just two weeks earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised concerns about the Saudi program. He appealed to Trump, as well as to Senate Foreign Relations Committee leadership, not to authorize the nuclear reactor sales, according to Israeli officials.
In light of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Riyadh has said it seeks to become a “self-sufficient” nuclear power, operating up to 17 nuclear plants.
Saudi leaders have said they seek to match whatever capability the Iranians secured through the nuclear accord, which gave them the right to enrich uranium domestically – at a lower grade than is necessary to produce nuclear warheads, but in large quantities and on an industrial scale.