In October, shortly before stepping down, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced that talks over providing Riyadh with American assistance in developing its civilian nuclear capabilities had reached an impasse over Saudi reluctance to pledge not to enrich uranium. Once a country can enrich uranium itself, it can produce not only the low-enriched fuel used for civilian purposes but also the high-enriched form necessary for nuclear weapons. For decades, the American-led nonproliferation regime has allowed nations to purchase the former while forbidding them to enrich it themselves. But the Obama administration’s recognition of an Iranian “right to enrich” has overturned that standard. Yoel Guzansky notes the consequences:
The kingdom’s interest in nuclearization is nothing new, [but] in March 2018, [the] Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman said publicly—and explicitly—for the first time that if Iran acquired military nuclear capabilities, the Saudis would follow suit without delay.
It’s possible that a dangerous nuclear loop has been established between Iran and its neighbors: Iran’s nuclear efforts are motivating the states that feel threatened by Iran to nuclearize, and attempts by Saudi Arabia—and Turkey—to nuclearize do nothing to convince Iran to stop its nuclear program. At some point, Iran and its neighbors’ progress on nuclear infrastructure and knowledge could pass the point of no return.
Israel has an interest in preventing even Arab countries with which it cooperates, whether openly or in secret, from nuclearizing. This is because of the concern over a regional dynamic of nuclearization, which could push Iran to step up its own nuclear work; concern over dissemination of nuclear information; and concerns about a future change to the alignment of regional players or changes to friendly nations—for example, if a regime were to fall.