Why Israel Should Worry About the Saudi and Emirati Nuclear Programs

Today’s ally can become tomorrow’s enemy, as Israel’s history of friendship with pre-revolutionary Iran and pre-Erdogan Turkey illustrates.

Employees work at the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant in the United Arab Emirates
Employees work at the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant in the United Arab Emirates’ far western desert in this undated photo published by the UAE’s state-run WAM news agency. The plant was connected to the country’s power grid in August. WAM via AP

The embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently found an escape route from his escalating domestic crisis, with the announcement in August of Israel’s peace deal with the United Arab Emirates and in recent days with Bahrain. For decades, the United States has pledged to uphold Israel’s qualitative military edge over neighboring Arab states, and in recent years it has refused the sale of cutting-edge weapons to the UAE, fearing this could compromise Israel’s military advantage. Now that Israel has signed a peace deal with the UAE and Bahrain, however, it will become harder for Israel to oppose the sale of military hardware to its Arab neighbors.

Israel has historically expressed fierce opposition to strengthening the offensive capacity of any Arab state. The United States is pushing to sell Abu Dhabi a package of sophisticated weapons including F-35 fighter jets, widely believed to be the most capable strike aircraft in the world, as well as Reaper drones and electronic warfare planes which jam enemy defenses. Once the UAE receives these arms, other Arab states will expect the same treatment.

Neither the Trump administration nor the Netanyahu government are willing to acknowledge the dangers of transferring sophisticated arms to countries that are allies today but could be enemies tomorrow.

The United States does not deny that the arms package has been facilitated by the normalization deal between Israel and the UAE, but neither the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump nor the Netanyahu government are willing to acknowledge the dangers of transferring sophisticated arms to countries that are allies today but could be enemies tomorrow. After all, Israel enjoyed a strategic alliance with Iran, reflected by strong military and intelligence cooperation and flourishing economic ties, until the Iranians became an implacable foe almost overnight following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Israel had also enjoyed a strategic alliance with Turkey for decades, on and off, until 2010.

After news of the arms sales became public in late August, Netanyahu repeatedly denied that he had given assurances to the Trump administration that Israel would not oppose them. Understandably, he did not wish to be portrayed by his rivals as a leader who had compromised Israel’s security. A former defense minister and chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, who is now a fierce critic of Netanyahu, has expressed concerns over the lack of transparency regarding the agreement with the UAE.

While the peace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain are a hugely positive development for Israel, there will be rising strategic costs as it seeks to widen the circle of normalization with the Persian Gulf states. This can be seen most clearly in the case of Saudi Arabia. Over the past five years, formal and informal contacts between senior Israelis and Saudis have intensified, amid shared concerns over the threat posed by Iran. Netanyahu’s determination to preserve close ties with Riyadh has been reflected in his readiness to defend the Saudi regime following the murder of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. More significantly, Israel’s government has thus far chosen silence amid new revelations of Saudi Arabia’s construction of a new nuclear facility in cooperation with China, suggesting that the kingdom’s embryonic nuclear program is moving forward.

This hands-off approach undermines one of Israel’s most effective arguments in bringing international pressure to bear against Iran’s nuclear program: the idea that a failure to prevent a nuclear Iran would result in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Yet it appears that the nuclear arms race is already up and running.

Israel’s long-standing policy has been to prevent its regional adversaries from acquiring any nuclear capability. This policy has become known as the “Begin Doctrine,” named after the then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who famously authorized the bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981.

On being asked whether Israel would also take action against other countries with nuclear ambitions, Begin replied that Israel was dealing with Iraq first. “The others we’ll deal with another time.”

The doctrine has largely been upheld both before and after the Osirak raid. As early as 1979, Begin wrote to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to express his concern over nuclear cooperation between Pakistan and Libya. And in 2007, then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert authorized a raid that destroyed the Syrian al-Kibar nuclear facility.

Netanyahu reportedly gave orders in 2010 for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to begin preparations for a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, but backed down in the face of strong opposition from the Israeli military as well as the intelligence and security agencies. Nevertheless, some Middle Eastern intelligence officials have claimed that Israel was behind the explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility in July this year. From this perspective, an upgrade to the Begin Doctrine may be taking shape.

And yet, in a break with its long-standing policy, Israel expressed no opposition to a deal for peaceful nuclear cooperation between Washington and Abu Dhabi in 2009, which facilitated the transfer of nuclear technology to the UAE for the building of an ostensibly civilian nuclear reactor. In the case of the UAE, the administration of then President Barack Obama insisted on strict conditions, whereby Abu Dhabi would forgo enrichment and reprocessing. This hasn’t prevented Emirati officials from suggesting that the deal could be reassessed after Iran was granted the right to enrich uranium under the 2015 nuclear deal it signed with the world powers.

The case of Saudi Arabia, however, is more troubling. Unlike the UAE, it has yet to agree to the so-called gold standard of nuclear oversight. Saudi Arabia has a very limited safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Moreover, in contrast to the UAE, the Saudis have not signed up to the IAEA Additional Protocol, which enhances the ability of the agency to verify the peaceful uses of all nuclear material. It has not ruled out enriching uranium, which raises suspicions that it is pursuing a military nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia has not ruled out enriching uranium, which raises suspicions that it is pursuing a military nuclear program.

On the one hand, there are significant differences between the situation of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran remains committed to Israel’s destruction and is drawing closer to having enough enriched uranium to produce a single nuclear weapon.

The fact that Iran is moving closer towards a nuclear breakout is itself a damning indictment of Netanyahu’s strategy toward Tehran’s nuclear program. He lobbied intensively for the Trump administration to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal but even critics of the deal have conceded that Iran was largely in compliance prior to the U.S. pullout from the agreement. As the deal unravels, the Saudis are now more likely to pursue a military nuclear program because there are no longer constraints on Iran’s program.

Nevertheless, the Saudis are a long way from developing nuclear weapons.  While Saudi Arabia was an adversary of Israel and had provided symbolic military reinforcement to its Arab enemies during the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973, the ties between the two countries have clearly evolved, with mutual cooperation driven by the shared fear and loathing of Iran. Yet, Israel cannot count on Saudi Arabia remaining on good terms with the Jewish state forever.

If raising concerns over Saudi Arabia appear far-fetched today, then consider this: Iran’s nuclear program was first developed during the 1970s not by the ayatollahs but by the shah. Indeed, Western intelligence agencies believed that the nuclear activities conducted under the shah had clear military purposes.

Although Israel and Iran did not enjoy full ambassadorial relations prior to the Islamic Revolution, the two countries established close intelligence and military cooperation. Iran was a key supplier of oil to Israel until 1979. Several thousand Israeli businessmen and their families were living comfortably in Iran. Israeli Soltam mortars that were sold to the Shah of Iran were used a few years later against the IDF in Lebanon. The two countries even  struck up six  oil-for-arms deals worth an estimated $1.2 billion shortly before the fall of the shah.

Israel established cooperation in the intelligence field with Iran and Turkey as far back as the 1950s, but Israel’s strategic cooperation with Turkey  arguably reached its peak in the 1990s with the  sale of advanced weapons systems to Ankara. The strategic cooperation fell away with the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party under current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2002.

The strategic alliance with Iran and Turkey was driven by a shared fear of the Soviet Union in much the same way that Israel’s new cooperation with the Gulf states is propelled by anxiety over Iran. The deterioration in ties between the two countries was reflected in the Mavi Marmara episode of May 2010, in which 10 Turks were killed by Israeli naval commandos when they intercepted a Turkish aid ship in international waters en route to Gaza.

As the former U.S. government officials and nuclear nonproliferation experts Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski pointed out in Foreign Policy in 2018, “Saudi Arabia’s resistance to restrictions on uranium enrichment and plutonium extraction amounts to a public declaration that the kingdom wants to keep the nuclear weapons option open.”

The Trump administration has explored the possibility of providing the Saudis with nuclear power technology, but Riyadh has resisted the nonproliferation restrictions that would prevent it from enriching uranium and reprocessing spent fuel—precisely the restrictions that Israel is so adamant to maintain vis-à-vis Iran. The advantage for the Saudis of nuclear cooperation with China is that Beijing asks fewer questions when it comes to nuclear safeguards.

That should raise alarms in Washington. China has provided assistance to Saudi Arabia in the construction of a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, potentially laying the foundations for a uranium enrichment program. And according to a recent report in the Guardian, the Saudis may now have enough uranium ore to produce nuclear fuel.  China’s long-standing nuclear cooperation with Pakistan suggests that global nonproliferation norms are the least of its concerns when assisting allies with their nuclear programs. China’s support was vital in Pakistan’s development of its nuclear program, with the notorious engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan obtaining nuclear warhead designs as part of an agreement with Beijing in the early 1980s.

For now, both the Israelis and the Saudis remain committed to the adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” After all, Saudi Arabia has never hidden its determination to acquire a nuclear capability if Iran also goes nuclear. But it exposes Netanyahu’s double standard—and his dangerous indifference to the way threats can shift and evolve over time.

The same Netanyahu who has fought tooth and nail to prevent Iran from going nuclear has chosen public silence as the Saudis move ahead with their own nuclear program—a program that could one day threaten Israelis under different leaders and in different geopolitical conditions.

According to the Israel news website Walla, Israeli security and intelligence officials have contacted their U.S. counterparts to express concerns over Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program. At the same time, however, the prime minister’s office has instructed officials not to comment publicly on the matter because of concerns about harming Israel’s ties with the kingdom.

Netanyahu is an expert when it comes to deferring difficult choices.  Yet eventually a choice will have to be made between acquiescing to the erosion of Israel’s qualitative military edge and limiting how deep its ties with newfound friends in the Gulf will be allowed to go.

Azriel Bermant is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague.

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