Saudi Arabia likely to pursue nuclear weapons to counter a nuclear Iran
Saudia Arabia is the country in the Middle East most likely to begin a program to develop nuclear weapons if Iran's current efforts to develop a nuclear weapon cannot be stopped.
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A Saudi nuclear weapons capability would work strategically to shore-up Saudi insecurities vis-à-vis Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities, but also against potential hostile actions in the longer run from Israel, Iraq, and the United States. The Saudis have already taken several steps in this direction. In the 1980s, unknown to the United States, they secretly negotiated for and purchased intermediate range CSS-2 ballistic missiles from China. According to Anthony Cordesman, the Saudis purchased 50-60 CSS-2 missiles, 10-15 mobile launchers, and technical support from China. The missiles would be ideal for delivering nuclear weapons, but poorly suited for the delivery of conventional munitions because they are very inaccurate and too limited in numbers in the Saudi arsenal to be used in the massive missile barrages with the conventional weapons necessary to compensate for inaccuracies. The missiles, moreover, were sold from Chinese operational nuclear force inventories. Although Beijing and Riyadh claim that the missiles in Saudi Arabia are armed with conventional weapons, no American or international observers have been allowed by the Saudis to inspect and independently verify Chinese and Saudi claims.
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Despite these military upgrades, Saudi lead- ers fear that nuclear weapons would provide Iran with cover for conventional – or, even more likely, unconventional – aggression against the Kingdom.55 The primary Saudi concern is not a direct Iranian assault but rather the possibil- ity that nuclear weapons would provide a shield behind which Iran’s revolutionary leadership could promote Shia subversion and militancy in the Kingdom and across the region with impunity.56 Riyadh views the growing political restlessness of Shia populations in the country’s Eastern Province, as well as in surrounding Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Lebanon, as a threat that could eventually metastasize into an existential challenge to the House of Saud.57 The political turmoil associated with the Arab Spring has heightened these con- cerns. Indeed, in the current environment, Saudi leaders have tended to exaggerate Tehran’s hidden hand, ascribing any and all forms of instability and Shia activism in the Middle East to a conscious Iranian strategy to destabilize the Kingdom and other Gulf monarchies.58 But even if Saudi concerns sometimes border on paranoia, history suggests that new nuclear-armed states tend to be emboldened, at least for a time, to pursue more aggressive foreign policies by the belief that nuclear weapons protect them from devastating retalia- tion. It is therefore not completely unreasonable for Saudi leaders to fear that Iranian adventurism would be empowered by nuclear weapons.59
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Of any Middle Eastern state, Saudi Arabia is the state most likely to pursue nuclear weapons in response to the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon. While acknowledging the difficulty inherent in accurately predicting the ramifications of a Saudi nuclear weapon, one can envision a host of likely or possible outcomes that would dramatically undermine peace and stability in the Middle East and severely endanger U.S. interests and security. At some point in the Saudi process of developing or acquiring a nuclear weapon capability, Israel would likely detect the Saudi nuclear activity. Israel might strike a small number of Saudi targets in order to eliminate the program in its infancy. Even if the Saudis could obtain a nuclear weapon without Israeli knowledge, it is difficult to imagine a passive Israeli acceptance of a Saudi nuclear weapon, which the Israelis would likely view as an existential threat. If the Israeli response to a Saudi nuclear weapons program took the form of a military attack it would be seen in the Arab World in the context of an attack from the Jewish state against the Islamic holy land and home of the ''two holy mosques.'' Such an Israeli attack on Saudi Arabia would represent one of the greatest offenses to Muslims in history and would incite an unprecedented level of radicalization directed against Israel and the United States, possibly resulting in a regionwide conflict between Arab States and Israel.
By almost all measures of national power, Iran is significantly ahead of Saudi Arabia and other neighboring Arab states. It is these states, and the Sunni-Shia tensions that accompany Iran’s relations with them, that provide the greatest enduring challenge to Iran’s security.
Nuclear weapons may be the only means by which Saudi Arabia could equalize Iran’s overall power. Iranian leaders, particularly President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, recognize this. In private conversations, when they list reasons why it is not in Iran’s interest to transform its nuclear potential into actual nuclear weapons, Iranian leaders cite the risk of stimulating nuclear proliferation by their neighbors as number one.
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If Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, the United States would be wise to immediately focus on the Saudi reaction. If Saudi Arabia demonstrates restraint and does not pursue nuclear weapons, it might be possible to forestall a regional nuclear arms cascade, thereby allowing the United States to focus on containing and potentially rolling back Iranian nuclear forces. Conversely, if Saudi Arabia does respond by pursuing nuclear weapons, this could well ignite a regional nuclear arms chain reaction as described above. This would also significantly reduce the likelihood that the international community could convince Iran to relinquish its nuclear weapons. Staff interviews confirm the findings of Rand researchers Dalia Dassa Kaye and Frederic Wehrey that 'Saudi Arabia's reaction is a leading concern among all regional states,' and the 'Saudi reaction is likely to be the pivot around which inter-Arab debates resolve.' Therefore, the United States must take note of what the Saudis say and what may influence their decision.
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Yet the Saudis are often far more subtle and creative than others give them credit for. Even if Iran were to acquire an actual weapon or a near-term breakout capability, the Saudis might not simply take the obvious path forward and buy a nuclear weapon itself. There are many ways that the Saudis could take actions that would create ambiguity and make Iran (and others) wonder whether the Saudis had acquired a nuclear capability without declaring that the Kingdom had joined the nuclear club. Riyadh could build a nuclear plant of its own and begin to enrich uranium, perhaps even hiring large numbers of Pakistanis and other foreigners to do so very quickly, in almost exactly the same manner that the Iranians have proceeded. A favorite Israeli scenario is that one day, satellite imagery of Saudi Arabia suddenly reveals the presence of a half-dozen nuclear-capable Pakistani F-16s at a Saudi air base. Pakistan has long contributed military support, equipment and even whole formations to Saudi defense, so this would not be anything extraordinary. Everyone would wonder whether the F-16s had brought nuclear weapons with them and the Saudis could studiously avoid answering the question. The Iranians, and the whole world, would not know. There would be no proof that the Kingdom had acquired a nuclear weapon and therefore no particular basis to impose sanctions on Riyadh. Yet overnight, the Iranians would have to calculate that the Kingdom had acquired a nuclear weapon, but it would be very difficult for anyone to punish the Saudis because there would be no evidence that they had.
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Saudi officials believe Iran wants a nuclear weapon in order to come a regional superpower, to alleviate a sense of marginalization, to serve as a deterrent, and to be a more dominant force in the Gulf. While senior Saudi officials describe a nuclear-armed Iran as 'an existential threat,' most Saudi officials do not believe Iran would actually use nuclear weapons against Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia worries that Iranian nuclear weapons would encourage and enable the Iranians to pursue a more aggressive, hegemonic foreign policy in the region. However, it would be inaccurate to completely characterize SAG anxiety regarding Iranian nuclear weapons as purely a 'balance of power concern.' Based largely on Iran's subversive activities directed against the Saudi regime in the 1980s, some senior Saudi leaders find a nuclear-armed Iran especially disconcerting. Such past Iranian subversion efforts has imbued the senior Saudi leadership with an intense distrust of Tehran. Saudi Arabia currently fears Iranian influence, and finds the notion of a nuclear-armed Iran all the more disconcerting.
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The third argument often cited to suggest that Saudi Arabia would not pursue nuclear weapons relates to Saudi Arabia's nuclear technology capabilities. There exists a relatively strong consensus regarding the immature state of Saudi Arabia's nuclear technology infrastructure. Saudi Arabia lacks the human expertise and the technical knowledge necessary to develop a nuclear weapons program on its own. Experts consistently describe Saudi Arabia's nuclear infrastructure and know how as far inferior to Egypt and Turkey. Notwithstanding these apparent facts, observers should not underestimate Saudi Arabia's ability to obtain the technology required. Many scholars and U.S. diplomats believe Saudi Arabia may have some sort of formal or informal understanding with Pakistan regarding nuclear weapons. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have common interests and complementary assets. Pakistan has a nuclear capability and limited money, while Saudi Arabia has no nuclear capability and virtually unlimited money. While no solid evidence exists to confirm the formalization of such an agreement, some circumstantial evidence suggests an agreement or ''understanding'' may exist. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both primarily Sunni countries, both have a history of tense relations with Iran. Also, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan enjoy a long history of military cooperation. In fact, Pakistani deployed troops to Saudi soil from 1979 to 1987, and the two countries cooperated extensively in the 1980s to fight the Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan. Furthermore, then-Crown Prince Abdullah visited Pakistan a few months after Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests, raising some eyebrows. None of this proves the existence of a nuclear understanding between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, but if such an agreement exists, the transfer could manifest itself in four different forms. First, in the eventuality of an Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, the Pakistanis could transfer nuclear technology or materials to the Saudis. This transfer could jump-start the Saudi nuclear program and would dramatically reduce the time between a Saudi political decision to move forward on nuclear weapons and the Saudi development of a nuclear weapons capability. This transfer could take place at the official government to government level or at the subnational level, reminiscent of the A.Q. Kahn network. Pakistan could also deploy Pakistani nuclear forces to Saudi Arabia. This scenario may not incur the same international condemnation of the other two options and arguably would not violate the NPT.
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The second argument frequently cited as to why the Saudis would not pursue nuclear weapons relates to the character of the regime. Some argue the Saudi regime is too conservative, too timid to take such a bold and controversial step. However, the Saudi regime's undoubtedly conservative and occasionally timid approach to foreign relations has not kept Saudi Arabia from taking covert and controversial measures in the past in order to protect its interests. The Saudi acquisition of 50--60 CSS--2 missiles, 10--15 mobile launchers, and technical support from China at a cost of about $3 to $3.5 billion in the late 1980s provides a preeminent example. These missiles, which represent some of the longest-range missiles in the world, were acquired by the Saudis after the U.S. decision not to sell the Saudis surface to surface missiles. This Saudi move apparently reflected anything but a conservative or timid approach. Apparently conducted without the knowledge of Israel or the United States, General Khaled bin Sultan, who served as commander of Arab forces during Desert Shield and Desert Storm and who oversaw the Saudi acquisition of the Chinese missiles, visited China four times to close the deal. Detailing his responsibilities, he said:
"My task was to negotiate the deal, devise an appropriate deception plan, choose a team of Saudi officers and men and arrange for their training in both Saudi Arabia and China, build and defend operation bases and storage facilities in different parts of the Kingdom, arrange for the shipment of the missiles from China and, at every stage, be ready to defend the project against sabotage or any other form of attack."
The Saudis have denied U.S. requests for an onsite inspection of the missiles. Responding to such a request, Saudi Defense Minister Prince and now Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud said, 'Many people think that we're dependent on the United States for arms, and even say we're subservient to American policy. The acquisition of Chinese missiles proves the opposite.' In short, the Saudi acquisition of the Chinese CSS--2 missiles in the late 1980s strongly suggests that the Saudis are willing to bypass or risk alienating the United States in order to protect Saudi interests.
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Those who believe Saudi Arabia would not respond to an Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons by pursuing a weapon of its own usually emphasize one of three arguments. The first argument suggests the value the Saudis place on their relationship with the United States would dissuade them from taking a nuclear decision that would severely damage their most important bilateral relationship. Undoubtedly, Saudi Arabia values its relationship with the United States. The United States has served as Saudi Arabia's most important security guarantor since 1945. However, Saudi Arabia values its relationship with the United States because the United States has served Saudi Arabia's interests. If Saudi Arabia comes to believe the United States can not or will not protect the Kingdom and its core interests, the Saudi regime will not hesitate to develop the independent means to deter its enemies. The fact that no state can fully replace the United States as Saudi Arabia's security guarantor for the next two decades will shape Saudi decisionmaking. If the United States does not take assertive steps now to restore Saudi faith in the U.S. security guarantee, this fact will increase the likelihood that the Saudis will respond to a perceived decline in the reliability of U.S. security guarantees and the emergence of an Iranian nuclear threat by pursuing an independent nuclear deterrent.
Saudi Arabia has for past several years been laying the groundwork for a civil nuclear program with no military intent but the pending nuclear deal is compelling the Kingdom to engage in a contingency planning for a defensive nuclear program with military intent.
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Saudi Arabia is pursuing its own nuclear projects and building alliances to counter Iran, which is days away from a potential atomic deal Riyadh fears could further destabilise the region.
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Intelligence sources say Pakistan-made nuclear weapons ready for delivery to Saudi Arabia as part of efforts to counter Iran’s atomic programme, but Islamabad says claims are 'baseless'.
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In the past month Saudi Arabia has put together a coalition of 12 countries and launched a massive military campaign, dubbed Decisive Storm, to counter the advances of the Houthi rebels in Yemen and roll back their attempted takeover of the country.
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Prince Turki al-Faisal, a senior member of the Saudi royal family, has warned that a deal on Iran's nuclear programme could prompt other regional states to develop atomic fuel.
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The visit by the chairman of Pakistan's Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee will likely prompt concern in Washington and other major capitals that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have reconfirmed an arrangement whereby Pakistan, if asked, will supply Saudi Arabia with nuclear warheads.
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While most of America’s Middle East allies—with the exception of Israel—have publicly supported the current Iran negotiations, behind the scenes, envoys from the region have expressed grave concerns that Iran could be left with a break out capacity to make the fuel for a nuclear weapon at a time of their choosing. And now, one of the countries in the region without a full-blown nuclear programs—Saudi Arabia—appears to be changing its mind and pursing nuclear enrichment.
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An influential member of the Saudi royal family warned Wednesday that unless the Middle East becomes a nuclear weapon-free zone, a nuclear arms race is inevitable and could include his own country, Iraq, Egypt and even Turkey. [ More ]
The Obama administration is seeking to sell Saudi Arabia advanced aircraft and anti-ballistic missile systems worth up to $60 billion in what Pentagon officials say would be the largest-ever single foreign arms deal. [ More ]
Official Iranian sources are claiming that they have information about Pakistan and Saudi Arabia signing an agreement in 2003 in which Pakistan promised to help Saudi Arabia develop nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. [ More ]