Report: Saudi Arabia Still Seeking Nuclear Weapons Capability

Saudi Arabia viewed as nuclear 'newcomer'

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud steps out of his airplane
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud steps out of his airplane / Getty Images
March 31, 2017

Saudi Arabia is still believed to be seeking nuclear weapons technology in a bid to counter the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, which continues to operate in an advanced manner despite the landmark nuclear agreement, according to a new report by a proliferation monitoring organization that labeled the Kingdom a nuclear "newcomer."

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have only increased since the nuclear deal was signed, leading the Saudis to pursue nuclear capabilities, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington D.C.-based organization that monitors global proliferation issues.

"Saudi Arabia is in the early stages of nuclear development" and is expected to "more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities" in order to counter the ongoing threat posed by Iran, according to the report.

While the Obama administration claimed the nuclear deal would ease regional tensions, there is little evidence at this point to confirm that claim. Iran has more aggressively backed terrorist organizations since the deal and continues to harass U.S. military assets and allies in the region.

The nuclear deal "has also not eliminated the Kingdom's desire for nuclear weapons capabilities and even nuclear weapons, but rather reduced the pressure on Saudi Arabia to match Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities in the short term," according to the institute's report.

Saudi efforts to pursue nuclear weapons technology is likely to increase in the coming years as the nuclear deal approaches its sunset, according to the report. The country has already stated its intention to build at least 16 nuclear reactors in the coming years.

"There is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns about the ending of the [nuclear deal's] major nuclear limitations starting after year 10 of the deal or sooner if the deal fails," the report notes. "If Iran expands its enrichment capabilities, as it states it will do, Tehran will reduce nuclear breakout times, or the time needed to produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon, to weeks and then days."

"With these concerns, the Kingdom is likely to seek nuclear weapons capabilities as a hedge," the report states.

A European government official confirmed to the institute's experts as early as 2014 that Saudi Arabia is pursuing the "scientific and engineering expertise necessary to take command of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle."

This type of research has taken place under the guise of a civilian nuclear program, according to the report, which did not find any evidence that Saudi Arabia has begun a clandestine weapons program.

"At this point in time and at its current pace of nuclear development, Saudi Arabia would require years to create the nuclear infrastructure needed to launch a nuclear weapons effort," the report states, adding that the intention to achieve such a capability seems clear. 

Right now, according to open source materials studied by ISIS, "Saudi Arabia is concentrating on building up its civilian nuclear infrastructure."

This includes acquiring nuclear facilities and teaming up with nations such as Russia, South Korea, and China to exchange nuclear technology. Saudi Arabia also is conducting research into civil nuclear capabilities and developing a multi-layered staff of nuclear engineers and scientists, according to the report.

"Saudi Arabia appears genuinely committed to importing many nuclear reactors and has pursued numerous cooperation agreements with other countries," the report notes.

While its work is focused mainly on civilian nuclear uses, Saudi Arabia "appears on a trajectory to create domestic appendages that could provide a nuclear weapons capability, even if for some time these capabilities would likely be under international safeguards," the report warns.