Saudi crown prince threatens to develop a nuke as kingdom seeks foreign nuclear technology

Key Points
  • Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told CBS the kingdom would pursue a nuclear weapon if its regional rival Iran obtains one.
  • The remark comes as the kingdom is seeking access to foreign technology and know-how to build nuclear reactors.
  • Prominent U.S. senators have signaled to the Trump administration that any U.S.-Saudi partnership should not relax restrictions typically placed on enrichment.
Mohammed bin Salman
Will Oliver | Pool | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince says the kingdom would pursue a nuclear weapon if its regional rival Iran obtains one.

The comment raises concerns about nuclear proliferation at a time when the Saudis are seeking foreign technology for their nuclear energy program, including from the United States. It also comes just two months ahead of a deadline that could see President Donald Trump scrap an accord that limits Iran's nuclear program.

In an interview with CBS, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Saudi Arabia is not actively pursuing a nuclear weapon, but that could change suddenly.

"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," he said in an interview that will air on the news magazine program "60 Minutes."

The kingdom has plans to build 16 nuclear power reactors within 25 years, according to the World Nuclear Association. The cost of the projects could reach $80 billion, a huge opportunity for the companies that build and operate nuclear plants.

Saudi crown prince visit 'all about optics'
Saudi crown prince visit 'all about optics'

The Trump administration has pursued that business, which could bolster the bankrupt nuclear construction company Westinghouse and power generators like Exelon, whose U.S. nuclear plants have come under financial strain due to competition from natural gas and renewable energy.

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, who has prioritized reviving America's nuclear power industry, led a U.S. delegation to London earlier this month to discuss Saudi Arabia's plans to develop a civilian nuclear program.

Perry declined to comment on that meeting to CNBC during the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston last week. The Department of Energy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Salman's remarks.

Salman is scheduled to visit the United States and meet with Trump next week.

Concerns have surfaced that the Trump administration could relax restrictions on enrichment activities that the United States typically places on countries that receive U.S. nuclear technology and training. The measures, enshrined in so-called 123 agreements, aim to prevent uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing geared toward developing nuclear weapons.

Some argue that Saudi Arabia can simply turn to countries like China for relatively unfettered access to nuclear technology if the United States takes a hard line.

But Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Democratic Sen. Edward Markey have come out in favor of maintaining strict controls on enrichment.

"Saudi Arabia's crown prince has confirmed what many have long suspected — nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia is about more than just electrical power, it's about geopolitical power," Markey said in a statement Thursday.

"The United States must not compromise on nonproliferation standards in any 123 agreement it concludes with Saudi Arabia."

@SenMarkey: .@realDonaldTrump is trying to curry favor with the Saudi Crown Prince by trading U.S. security interests for commercial ones. Any #nuclear cooperation with the Saudis must include the highest non-proliferation and safeguard standards – a gold-standard!

The kingdom has balked at such restrictions. Saudi Arabia notes Iran is allowed to enrich uranium for civilian purposes under a 2015 accord with the United States and five other world powers. The accord lifted sanctions on Iran over its alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon in exchange for Tehran accepting limits on its nuclear program and conceding to international inspections.

Iran nuclear deal at risk

That agreement is now at risk of collapse. In January, Trump said he would no longer waive sanctions against Iran unless his administration can reach a deal with European counterparts to toughen the terms of the accord by May 12.

Iran also has made threats about pulling out of the deal, alleging that the United States has not done enough to signal to international banks and companies that they will not be punished for re-entering the Iranian market. As a result, the country has not realized economic relief promised by the accord, its leaders say.

Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are on opposite sides of conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and Riyadh is concerned by Tehran's influence in other Middle Eastern nations like Iraq and Lebanon.

In the CBS interview, Salman doubled down on his past comparison of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to Adolph Hitler.

Asked to explain the comparison, he said: "Because he wants to expand. He wants to create his own project in the Middle East, very much like Hitler, who wanted to expand at the time."

"Many countries around the world and in Europe did not realize how dangerous Hitler was until what happened happened."