Paul HANDLEY, AFP
Washington (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.
“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 told CBS television in an interview, parts of which were released Thursday.
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.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “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.”
Excerpts from the interview, which will air in full on CBS on Sunday, came as the Trump administration threatens to end the Iran nuclear deal, which could leave Tehran free to advance its development of atomic weapons.
Iran, under pressure from European powers to assuage US worries about its adherence to the nuclear deal, hit back at the prince.
“These words are worthless … because they come from a simple mind full of illusions who speaks only bitterness and lies,” said Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi.
– 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 defense 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 liberalization of social mores from the stifling ideology of Wahhabi Islam, and moving to modernize 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 Shiite Iran.
He has mired the US-backed Saudi military in a disastrous confrontation with Tehran’s proxies in a war that has destroyed much of Yemen, and launched 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 the political offensive against Qatar — which the US Defense Department opposed.
– Fast-track nuclear energy program –
But even in the United States, the kingdom’s new nuclear energy push has raised worries that, as in Iran, it could potentially underpin a weapons program.
Earlier this week, the Saudi cabinet officially put the atomic energy program on a fast track, saying it aims to lessen domestic use of oil to preserve the kingdom’s huge hydrocarbon resources for export markets.
By May 12, Trump must decide whether to stick with 2015’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which removed sanctions on Iran in exchange for its pledge to halt its push toward developing nuclear weapons capability.
Trump has repeatedly condemned the JCPOA, and his sacking Tuesday of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson removed one of the deal’s main defenders within the administration.
Tillerson’s replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, is an Iran hawk whose arrival could sound the deal’s death knell.
“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.