RIYADH (AFP) – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, Riyadh will follow suit – just days before he arrives in Washington for talks with US President Donald Trump.
In an interview with CBS television, parts of which were released on Thursday (March 15), the upstart Saudi royal likened Iran’s supreme leader to Adolf Hitler, warning he could sweep through the Middle East like Germany’s Nazis did at the start of World War II.
“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,” Prince Mohammed said in the interview, which will air in full on CBS on Sunday.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he said, “wants to create his own project in the Middle East, very much like Hitler who wanted to expand at the time,” said the 32-year-old heir to the throne.
“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.”
His comments come as the Trump administration threatens to end the Iran nuclear deal, which could leave Teheran free to advance its development of atomic weapons.
STOKING SAUDI-IRAN RIVALRY
Prince Mohammed, the son and heir of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Monday ahead of talks with Trump on Tuesday.
The brazen prince, dubbed “MBS”, has rocked Saudi Arabia since his father became king in 2015 and named him defence minister.
Last year, he was elevated to crown prince, and is seen as the effective ruler under his 82-year-old father.
His moves have shaken up the kingdom – declaring a liberalisation of social mores from the stifling ideology of Wahhabi Islam, and moving to modernise a heavily top-down economy.
But in a move to consolidate his power over rival royals, he also locked up many princes and top businessmen for months to force them to hand over fortunes and accept him as the country’s future sovereign.
And he has also added fuel to largely Sunni Saudi Arabia’s fight with Shi'ite Iran, miring the US-backed Saudi military in a disastrous confrontation with Teheran’s proxies in a war that has destroyed much of Yemen, and launching a mostly failed effort by Gulf Arab states to isolate Qatar.
Trump, however, has repeatedly signalled his support for Saudi Arabia, visiting Riyadh in May 2017 on his first foreign trip as the US leader.
His son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner took the lead in building a relationship with Prince Mohammed, reportedly supporting his political offensive against Qatar – which the US Defence Department opposed.
FAST-TRACK NUCLEAR ENERGY PROGRAMME
The new push by the kingdom to develop a nuclear energy capability has raised worries that, as in Iran, it could potentially underpin a weapons programme.
Earlier this week, the Saudi cabinet officially put the atomic energy programme on a fast track, saying it aims to lessen domestic use of oil to preserve the kingdom’s huge hydrocarbon resources for export markets.
Saudi Arabia has for decades ranked as the world’s leading crude oil exporter.
Prince Mohammed’s visit comes less than two months before Trump must decide whether to continue sticking with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which removed sanctions on Iran in exchange for its pledge to halt its push towards developing nuclear weapons capability.
Trump has repeatedly condemned the deal, agreed by his predecessor Barack Obama together with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – all of which want to keep the agreement in place.
But Trump’s sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, removing a defender of the deal, and naming CIA director Mike Pompeo, an Iran hawk, to replace him could sound the death knell for the Iran accord when the May 12 deadline for Trump’s decision arrives.
“The United States is determined to leave the nuclear deal, and changes at the State Department were made with that goal in mind – or at least it was one of the reasons,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi said Wednesday.