While the nuclear agreement with Iran was being negotiated in 2014 and 2015, its critics warned that, by allowing Tehran the “right to enrich” uranium, the world powers would begin a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Revelations that China is helping Saudi Arabia build two suspected nuclear facilities suggests that this concern was warranted, as Andrea Stricker and Behnam Ben Taleblu write:
Prior to 2004, when China joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group—a group of states committed to preventing proliferation of sensitive nuclear technologies—Beijing sold problematic nuclear facilities and materials to Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, India, South Africa, Algeria, and Argentina. It has also failed to . . . prevent the supply of nuclear-related equipment and commodities by Chinese companies or foreign-owned companies operating on its soil.
Seen in this light, China’s nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia is likely commercial in nature, rather than the result of a strategic preference for regional supremacy by either Riyadh or Tehran. But such mercantilist considerations can create long-term opportunities for China to tempt states like Saudi Arabia out of the American orbit. In the short-to-medium term, however, Chinese assistance to Riyadh complicates Washington’s efforts to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program.
The stakes are high. If the United States fails in convincing Saudi Arabia, a regional partner, not to opt for domestic enrichment, then it will face greater hurdles getting Iran to accept limits on its own program. If the two become locked in a race for nuclear supremacy, then both countries could claim a security-based need to make nuclear weapons that might garner less outrage from the international community than if only one had developed nuclear weapons. This, in turn, would not only undercut the nonproliferation regime but trigger a cascade of regional proliferation likely beginning with Turkey or Egypt.