Mohammed bin Salman Launches First Saudi Nuclear Plant Project as Sanctions Bite on Rival Iran

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia has launched the country's first nuclear power plant project as the kingdom looks to diversify away from its traditional reliance on oil and compete with archrival Iran.

Even as President Donald Trump's administration was reimposing economic sanctions on Iran for its nuclear research program, Salman was announcing the start of a new era for Saudi Arabia at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in the capital city of Riyadh.

The crown prince launched seven new strategic projects related to renewable energy, atomic energy, water desalination, genetic medicine and the aircraft industry, Reuters reported. The initiatives are part of the country's bid to transition away from its traditionally oil-focused economy.

The nuclear plant is the first of 16 planned by the Saudis over the next two decades, at a cost of $80 billion. The kingdom's plans have been precipitated by its ongoing regional struggle for influence with Iran, which already has a nuclear energy program.

Saudi Arabia's bid to establish an atomic energy industry will be assisted with U.S. investment and advice, though the Trump administration has said it will keep tight control on any efforts to weaponize the research, according to Reuters.

Few details about the plant have been released, Radio Free Europe said, but it is likely to be used for research, development and education purposes rather than to produce electrical power. The project will be geared toward civilian and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia's nuclear pivot has raised concerns that a nuclear arms race could develop in the Middle East. In March, Salman publicly warned that Riyadh would work to develop atomic weapons if Iran does the same, according to CNBC.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiative FII conference in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on October 24. GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images

Though Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran, leaders in Tehran are still hopeful the agreement can survive his presidency.

The other signatories to the deal—China, Russia, the European Union, France, Germany and the U.K.—still back the accord, raising hopes that the restraints it placed on Iranian nuclear research can be maintained.

But the White House believes its punitive sanctions can bring Tehran back to the negotiating table to agree to a deal more beneficial to the U.S. Trump wants a new agreement to include restrictions on Iran's ballistic missile program and its influence in regional conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq—concessions Tehran has rejected.

If this fails, reports suggest Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton believe sanctions combined with existing anti-government sentiment could even prompt regime change, according to The Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia has been involved in nuclear research in other countries in the past. It has been suggested that the country's role in helping Pakistan join the nuclear club was agreed to on the basis that the Saudis could buy ready-made bombs from Islamabad if the regional situation deteriorates, according to the BBC. Both countries have denied these suggestions.

Other security sources and reporters have even claimed—without concrete evidence—that Israel is selling nuclear information to the Saudis to ensure that Iran does not become the only other regional power with the bomb, according to the Middle East Monitor.

The ruling Saudi royal family is facing widespread criticism over the apparent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country's consulate in Istanbul on October 2. The suspected involvement of the crown prince and the upper echelons of the Saudi government has led some U.S. lawmakers to recommend that America should step back from the close relationship that has developed between Washington and Riyadh.