The Middle East Braces for a Nuclear Iran

Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian meets Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Beijing, China, on Thursday. (Photo by Iranian Foreign Ministry/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The United States’ two most influential Middle Eastern partners are diverging in their responses to Iran’s burgeoning nuclear capabilities as U.S. attempts to rein in the Islamic Republic flounder. While Israel prepares for the possibility of a military showdown, Saudi Arabia appears poised to make amends with its longtime regional foe while eyeing an atomic arsenal of its own.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister met with his Iranian counterpart Thursday in Beijing to sign a Chinese-brokered agreement to reopen their respective embassies and resume flights between their two countries after cutting diplomatic ties in 2016. They also pledged non-aggression and a mutual respect for one another’s sovereignty in their first meeting in seven years. Although there’s no indication they touched on Iran’s recent nuclear advances Thursday, they reportedly discussed the issue in talks before signing the deal. 

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said in January Iran had “an obligation to give up” its nuclear program, but the Saudis also want to keep the door open for their own nuclear program. The Islamic kingdom has repeatedly asserted its own right to control the nuclear fuel cycle, refusing to preemptively limit its ability to enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel. This approach is in part due to Saudi Arabia’s desire to break its dependence on oil by utilizing domestic uranium reserves for a civilian nuclear program, but Saudi leaders have also openly pledged to build a nuclear weapon if Iran does. 

“[Saudi Arabia] has warned that if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon then this would push the whole region to a nuclear arms race,” Faisal J. Abbas, editor-in-chief of the Saudi Arabia-based Arab News, said in an interview. 

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