That insistence is what set off the Iranian nuclear crisis. Over the years, several nations have demonstrated that it is possible to turn ostensibly civilian programs into sources of bomb fuel, and thus atomic warheads and military power. Israel recently released an archive of material, stolen from Tehran in January, to prove that the Iranian government deceived the world for years.
The Saudis, meanwhile, had no equivalent facilities. They promised to get them.
“Whatever the Iranians build, we will also build,” Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief, warned as the Obama administration sought to negotiate what became the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.
Under that pact, Iran is currently spinning a small number of nuclear centrifuges, though it had to ship 97 percent of its nuclear fuel out of the country. The Saudis believe they need to be positioned to match Iran’s every move, though experts say it would take a while. “No one thinks the Saudis would be able to do this anytime soon,” said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “They couldn’t plausibly build a weapon without outside help.”
The core challenge for the Trump administration is that it has declared that Iran can never be trusted with any weapons-making technology. Now, it must decide whether to draw the same line for the Saudis.
The United States’ own actions may be helping to drive the Saudis’ nuclear thinking. Now that the Iran agreement, brokered with world powers, is on the edge of collapse after Mr. Trump withdrew the United States, analysts are worried that the Saudis may be positioning themselves to create their own nuclear program in response.
The kingdom has extensive uranium deposits and five nuclear research centers. Analysts said Saudi Arabia’s atomic work force was steadily growing in size and sophistication — even without producing nuclear fuel.
Saudi leaders saw a political opening when Mr. Trump was elected.
In its early days, the administration spent considerable time discussing ways that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states could acquire nuclear reactors. Michael T. Flynn, who briefly served as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, backed a plan that would have let Moscow and Washington cooperate on a deal to supply Riyadh with reactors — but not the ability to make its own atomic fuel.