Will the Iran deal set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East? Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t want to go nuclear, he tells Norah O’Donnell in a 60 Minutes interview due to air on Sunday, but Saudi Arabia will not wait long after Iran creates a nuclear weapon to follow suit. An Iranian nuke would change the balance of power in the region, Salman says, negating Saudi Arabia’s current conventional military advantage — and with a man like Ali Khameini at the helm, that’s particularly bad:
Saudi crown prince says Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei is "very much like Hitler." In his first American television interview, the prince tells 60 Minutes his country will get its own nuclear bomb if Iran develops one. https://t.co/wo0W17n8Y0 pic.twitter.com/TjprQTY8rN
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) March 15, 2018
NORAH ODONNELL: Does Saudi Arabia need nuclear weapons to counter Iran?
MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: 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.
Everyone has more or less assumed that the Saudis would go nuclear if Iran did, but this makes it even more clear. The big question is how far they may already be along the path. They have been known to consider buying a nuclear weapon from outside sources, an option that no doubt took on greater urgency after the US signed a deal with Iran that essentially allowed the mullahs to develop nukes in 15 years.
The Saudi government agreed on Tuesday to create a civilian nuclear program. The royal family has wanted for years to move away from a petroleum-based economy, and alternative energy production would be a big part of that strategy. They may build as many as 20 nuclear power plants to gradually replace petroleum for generation of electricity, allowing them to export more oil. However, it’s also a necessary step for producing one’s own nuclear weapons, and while the declaration Tuesday insists that the program will remain peaceful and under international observation, it still provides a platform for other purposes if that time comes.
Salman warns that the West is missing a second Hitler in Tehran. Khameini wants lebensraum just as much as the Nazis did, he tells O’Donnell, and he’s already on his way to achieving it:
NORAH ODONNELL: But I’ve seen that you called the Ayatollah, Khamenei, “the new Hitler” of the Middle East.
MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: Absolutely.
NORAH ODONNELL: Why?
MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: 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. I don’t want to see the same events happening in the Middle East.
This too has been obvious for some time, if not in Hitleresque references. Iran is close to having a connection to the Mediterranean with pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon. They’re encircling Saudi Arabia with the Houthi rebellion in Yemen and an alliance with Oman. Small wonder Salman wants to use a little hyperbole when it comes to Khameini, but the exaggeration isn’t large.
If Khameini gets nuclear weapons, he will impose Iranian hegemony throughout the Middle East, forcing the hands of other nations to follow suit. This is why it was important to keep the pressure on Iran to keep it from nuclearization in the first place. It’s not going to be much comfort to have the Saudis as a nuclear counterweight in the region, but at the moment it’s about as good as we can hope unless the Iranians give up on nukes altogether.