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Trump and China: Risking a Middle East Arms Race

The United States and China both cozying up to Saudi Arabia (and irritating Iran) could mean global trouble.

April 26, 2017

The United States and China both cozying up to Saudi Arabia (and irritating Iran) could mean global trouble.

U.S. President Donald Trump is not pleased. In his fiery election campaign pronouncements, Mr. Trump had described the nuclear agreement as “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen” and vowed to “dismantle” it. The agreement was concluded two years ago with the world’s major powers.

Limits to U.S. power

To his chagrin, Mr. Trump has found himself forced to acknowledge that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. His strategy stems from the realization that the United States would render itself impotent if he were to unilaterally terminate the agreement with Iran.

The United States’s European allies as well as Russia and China would condemn termination, uphold their end of the agreement, and refuse to adhere by punitive measures the United States might adopt. In other words, termination would significantly reduce the United States’ ability to influence Iran.

Even so, sticking to his desire to remain unpredictable, Mr. Trump has not ruled out terminating the agreement. Asked point blank by the Associated Press whether he would stick to the deal, Mr. Trump replied: “It’s possible that we won’t.”

Strange bedfellows

Ironically, the staunchest opponents of the nuclear agreement with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel, have since its conclusion urged the Trump administration not to scrap the deal.

No question, both countries remain critical of the agreement. However, they believe that the nuclear deal has bought them a decade of an Islamic republic deprived of a nuclear weapons capability. From their vantage point, the rise of Mr. Trump — and his tougher policy towards Iran – supports them in their approach.

Playing with fire

A frustrated Trump doesn’t just sit back, however. That is why he appears to be actively groping for ways to provoke Iran to back out of the deal. His policy toward Iran risks sparking an arms race – as the unintended consequence of his policy, not as a planned outcome.

In that regard, the outcome of May 12 elections in Iran could play into Mr. Trump’s hands — if a hardliner, rather than incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, were to emerge victorious.

Enter China

But Trump isn’t the only one ready to play with fire. Enter the Chinese. They have agreed to build a drone manufacturing plant in Saudi Arabia. This step alone could initiate a similar drone race that threatens to take hostilities in the region to a whole new, more dangerous level.

With the United States refusing to share its most advanced drone technology, China has agreed to open its first overseas defense production facility in Saudi Arabia.

State-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) will manufacture its CH-4 Caihong, or Rainbow drone as well as associated equipment in Saudi Arabia. The CH-4 is comparable to the U.S. armed MQ-9 Reaper drone.

The deal could spark an arms race in the Middle East with Iran and other states seeking to match the kingdom’s newly acquired capability to launch strikes from the comfort of a computerized, Saudi-based command-and-control center — without putting Saudi military personnel at risk.

Reckless China?

As if that drone project weren’t explosive enough, China also signed an agreement on nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia during last month’s visit by Saudi King Salman.

The agreement is for a feasibility study for the construction of high-temperature gas-cooled (HTGR) nuclear power plants in the kingdom as well as cooperation in intellectual property and the development of a domestic industrial supply chain for HTGRs built in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi strategy

The agreement contributes to Saudi Arabia’s effort to develop nuclear energy and potentially a nuclear weapons capability.

Saudi officials have repeatedly insisted that the kingdom is developing nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes such as medicine, electricity generation, and desalination of sea water.

They said Saudi Arabia is committed to putting its future facilities under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

A recent report by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) concluded:

The nuclear agreement with Iran had not eliminated the kingdom’s desire for nuclear weapons capabilities and even nuclear weapons… There is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns about the ending of the JCPOA’s major nuclear limitations starting after year 10 of the deal or sooner if the deal fails.”

Put into plain English: Saudi Arabia is putting into place the legal building blocks for its own nuclear capability for if and when Iran is freed from the shackles of the nuclear agreement.

For now, that is a decade from now. An earlier cancellation would move that point up not necessarily by design.

China as regional balancer?

China, unlike the United States, has to balance its relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, with which it has had a far longer military relationship.

To do so, China has moved cautiously to restore nuclear cooperation with Iran in the wake of the lifting of the UN sanctions.

Iran’s government-controlled Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) reported this weekend that that China had agreed to redesign Iran’s Arak nuclear reactor under U.S. supervision.

Given China’s emerging dual allegiances in the region, whatever Mr. Trump does vis-à-vis Iran matters a great deal. His high stakes poker game will likely embolden Saudi Arabia in what the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family considers its existential battle with Iran.

That, coupled with Chinese nuclear energy and military deals with Saud Arabia (and Iran), creates an explosive mix that threatens to spark a regional arms race with potentially dangerous consequences.

It is important to note, however, that the Chinese dealings with Iran and Saudi Arabia in the nuclear domain fall within the NPT guidelines.

They are not in and of themselves designed for weaponization. Still, one has to put them in the context of unspoken ambitions and maneuvering for the future.


China and the United States are pursuing different objectives in the Middle East and its dominant Saudi-Iranian dispute. In doing so, the two world powers risk further destabilizing the region — rather than contributing to ending debilitating disputes, reducing volatility and putting an end to large scale bloodshed.

As a result, despite their different goals, both powers’ approaches threaten to reinforce one another in putting the Middle East at greater risk.


Saudi Arabia & Israel believe Iran’s nuclear agreement bought them a decade free of Iranian nukes.

For Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump's tougher policy towards Iran supports their approach.

Trump's policy toward Iran risks sparking a regional arms race as an unintended consequence.

Saudi Arabia is preparing for nuclear capability in case Iran is freed from the nuclear agreement.