While the United States and Saudi Arabia have always been allies, moves by the United States during the Obama administration regarding Iran put some tension into the relationship. However, it appears that the moves by current President have resulted in some moves by the Saudi Arabia government as well.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is emphasizing the changes in his country, including women’s rights, his plan to diversify the Saudi economy away from its oil-centric ways, and pitching the kingdom as an investment opportunity for those companies in Silicon Valley.
During his meeting with President Trump, however, the focus was not on these items, but instead focused on their shared interests in the region, namely Iran and the nuclear reactors.
“The White House visit, the speeches, it’s kabuki theater,” said Thomas Lippman, a journalist and scholar at the Middle East Institute. “They’re going to meet, they’re going to say nice words, and they’re going to talk about fighting terrorism, and they’re going to announce deals that may or may not ever happen. We’ve seen this a hundred times. What I’m looking for is what happens on the nuclear cooperation agreement-if anything.”
Currently, under section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act, the United States cannot sell the kingdom nuclear reactors. Part of that section includes an agreement that if the U.S. transfers nuclear material and technology, those countries guarantee that they won’t use that technology to develop nuclear weapons.
While Saudi Arabia wants to buy nuclear reactors for its country to address an energy shortage, they also want to retain the ability to enrich uranium and reprocess the spent fuel, giving them the ability to develop a nuclear weapon at some point. Needless to say, U.S. lawmakers have expressed some doubt about complying with Saudi demands. Part of the problem is the current nuclear deal with Iran.
“It’s going to be very difficult for the kingdom to accept terms that are worse than what [President] Obama gave the Iranians,” said Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation. “Because, after all, the kingdom is an ally and friend of America and Iran was an adversary. Saudi Arabia has a built-in preference for America for obvious reasons. But it has options. And I think that the Trump administration realizes that.”
Still, the change of administration has meant that the Iran deal is now on the table. Trump has called it the worst agreement in history and U.S. diplomats are hoping to persuade other signatories to deal that the agreement must be strengthened by May or Trump will not extend the waiver of sanctions against Iran.
Iran and its actions in the region have repercussions beyond Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions and have also been a part of the U.S. and Saudi discussions. It is clear that Iran is seen as a threat to both nations, but how they move forward and how united they are remains to be seen.