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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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.
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While the U.S. security guarantee will play a central role in Saudi Arabia's nuclear decisionmaking, according to numerous individuals interviewed, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the manner in which United States has conducted the Iraq war since 2003 eroded Saudi perceptions of U.S. political wisdom and military capability. The Saudis believe the U.S. performance in Iraq, and the manner in which U.S. decisions were made, have dramatically increased Iranian influence in Iraq, unnerving the Saudis and reducing the reservoir of trust the United States built up in Saudi Arabia during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990--91. While the Saudis strongly supported the 2007 U.S. 'surge' in Iraq and welcomed the U.S. strategy to work with Sunni tribal leaders to establish order and oppose al-Qaeda, these steps have not fully remedied the significant loss of U.S. credibility. Saudi frustration with U.S. actions in Iraq and a perceived failure of the Bush administration to listen to Saudi counsel have reached such a threshold that King Abdullah often refuses to discuss Iraq with visiting senior U.S. officials. The Saudis want the United States to commit whatever num- ber of soldiers and resources necessary to achieve success in Iraq. The Saudis define success in Iraq as a durable end-state that consists of a peaceful, stable, and unified Iraq ruled by an Iraqi regime that fully incorporates Iraq's Sunnis, adamantly opposes Iranian meddling in Iraq, and assiduously seeks peaceful relations with its neighbors. As U.S. decisionmakers debate U.S. policy in Iraq, they should fully appreciate the second-order effects that the outcome in Iraq will have on United States-Saudi relations aprevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
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In December 2006, Saudi Arabia joined the five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to announce their intention to explore the development of a shared nuclear power program. These six countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) join Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Turkey as countries who have expressed interest in developing nuclear energy programs in the wake of Iran's nuclear activities. The GCC states have taken great pains to cooperate with the IAEA fully and to progress in a transparent manner. At the initial announcement, the Saudi Foreign Minister said, 'This is not a secret and we are doing this out in the open. Our aim is to obtain the technology for peaceful purposes, no more no less.' Despite these assurances, numerous individuals interviewed by staff expressed a belief that the GCC announcement should be seen primarily as a response to Iran's nuclear program. Analysts and scholars in the United States and the Arab world interviewed by staff believe the Saudi-led announcement was intended to communicate to the Iranians, 'we can play this game too,' while building a foundation of nuclear knowledge and expertise that would be useful should Saudi Arabia decide to pursue nuclear weapons in the future.
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One of the central questions staff attempted to answer throughout this study was whether Saudi Arabia would respond to an Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon by pursuing a weapon as well. In addition to the responses detailed above from Saudi Government officials, staff interviewed a large number of U.S. officials and Saudi scholars in Saudi Arabia, as well as a significant number of U.S. scholars in Washington. While responses varied, virtually every person interviewed by staff believed that Saudi Arabia would be the country most likely to pursue a nuclear weapon in response to an Iranian bomb. Significant disagreement existed regarding the Saudi's final decision, as well as their capability to obtain a nuclear weapon, but almost all individuals agreed that the United States should monitor Saudi Arabia, specifically. One senior U.S. diplomat said a Saudi nuclear weapon would be the ''real downside'' of an Iranian nuclear weapon, predicting that a Saudi pursuit of a nuclear weapon would be ''virtually certain.'' Referring to the Saudis, another senior U.S. diplomat with excellent access to the highest levels of the Saudi Government said that the idea of an Iranian nuclear weapon ''frightens them to their core'' and would lead the Saudis to pursue a nuclear weapon of their own. Some acknowl- edged these Saudi fears, but argued that the importance of the bilateral relationship with the United States would dissuade the Saudis from pursuing a nuclear weapon.
What if Iran chooses to cross the threshold? Among other likely consequences, an Iranian bomb would be a powerful stimulus pushing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to follow and seek the first Sunni bomb. The first, yes. Though also a Sunni-majority state, Pakistan built its bomb not for Islamic reasons, but to counter India's nuclear arsenal. In fact, Shiite-majority Iran enthusiastically hailed Pakistan's 1998 test of an atomic device. Clearly, the Iranian leadership did not see Pakistan's bomb as a threat. But Sunni Saudi Arabia sees Shia Iran as its primary enemy. The two are bitter rivals that, post-Iranian revolution, have vied for influence in the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia has the world's largest petroleum reserves, Iran the second. Saudi Arabia is the biggest buyer of advanced US weapons and is run by expatriates. It is America's golden goose, protected by US military might. But fiercely nationalist Iran expelled US oil companies after the revolution and is building its own scientific base. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are theocracies, with their respective theologies locked in an irresolvable conflict that began with the death of the Prophet of Islam some 15 centuries ago. Saudi Arabia is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the birthplace of Islam. It is the leader of the Sunni world, culturally conservative, and Arab.
Thanks to Wikileaks, it is now well known that that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly urged the US to destroy Iran's nuclear program and "cut off the head of the snake" by launching military strikes. In June, the influential former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador in London and Washington, Prince Turki bin Faisal, spoke to an audience from the British and American military and security community in England. Some parts of the speech, which has been circulated privately, are worth a careful read. Faisal began by reminding his audience why the Kingdom feels so confident today: "Saudi Arabia represents over 20 percent of the combined GDP of the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region." Describing Iran as "a paper tiger with steel claws," Faisal accused Tehran of "meddling and destabilizing efforts in countries with Shiite majorities." He then went on to express his country's position on nuclear weapons: "First, it is in our interest that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, for their doing so would compel Saudi Arabia, whose foreign relations are now so fully measured and well assessed, to pursue policies that could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences." The Saudi opposition to Israeli nuclear weapons was characteristically mild: "A zone free of weapons of mass destruction is the best means to get Iran and Israel to give up nuclear weapons." Saudi enthusiasm for the bomb is inspired by Iran, not by nuclear-armed Israel
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There is, however, at least one state that could receive significant outside support: Saudi Arabia. And if it did, proliferation could accelerate throughout the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been geopolitical and ideological rivals. Riyadh would face tremendous pressure to respond in some form to a nuclear-armed Iran, not only to deter Iranian coercion and subversion but also to preserve its sense that Saudi Arabia is the leading nation in the Muslim world. The Saudi government is already pursuing a nuclear power capability, which could be the first step along a slow road to nuclear weapons development. And concerns persist that it might be able to accelerate its progress by exploiting its close ties to Pakistan. During the 1980s, in response to the use of missiles during the Iran-Iraq War and their growing proliferation throughout the region, Saudi Arabia acquired several dozen CSS-2 intermediate-range ballistic missiles from China. The Pakistani government reportedly brokered the deal, and it may have also offered to sell Saudi Arabia nuclear warheads for the CSS-2s, which are not accurate enough to deliver conventional warheads effectively. There are still rumors that Riyadh and Islamabad have had discussions involving nuclear weapons, nuclear technology, or security guarantees. This "Islamabad option" could develop in one of several different ways. Pakistan could sell operational nuclear weapons and delivery systems to Saudi Arabia, or it could provide the Saudis with the infrastructure, material, and technical support they need to produce nuclear weapons themselves within a matter of years, as opposed to a decade or longer. Not only has Pakistan provided such support in the past, but it is currently building two more heavy-water reactors for plutonium production and a second chemical reprocessing facility to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. In other words, it might accumulate more fissile material than it needs to maintain even a substantially expanded arsenal of its own.
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Alternatively, Pakistan might offer an extended deterrent guarantee to Saudi Arabia and deploy nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and troops on Saudi territory, a practice that the United States has employed for decades with its allies. This arrangement could be particularly appealing to both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It would allow the Saudis to argue that they are not violating the NPT since they would not be acquiring their own nuclear weapons. And an extended deterrent from Pakistan might be preferable to one from the United States because stationing foreign Muslim forces on Saudi territory would not trigger the kind of popular opposition that would accompany the deployment of U.S. troops. Pakistan, for its part, would gain financial benefits and international clout by deploying nuclear weapons in Saudi Arabia, as well as strategic depth against its chief rival, India. The Islamabad option raises a host of difficult issues, perhaps the most worrisome being how India would respond. Would it target Pakistan's weapons in Saudi Arabia with its own conventional or nuclear weapons? How would this expanded nuclear competition influence stability during a crisis in either the Middle East or South Asia? Regardless of India's reaction, any decision by the Saudi government to seek out nuclear weapons, by whatever means, would be highly destabilizing. It would increase the incentives of other nations in the Middle East to pursue nuclear weapons of their own. And it could increase their ability to do so by eroding the remaining barriers to nuclear proliferation: each additional state that acquires nuclear weapons weakens the nonproliferation regime, even if its particular method of acquisition only circumvents, rather than violates, the NPT.
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The international revelations in 2003 about the scope and depth of Iran's nuclear weapons-related activities have brought to the public domain reports of Saudi contemplation of nuclear weapons with the assistance of Pakistan. The British newspaper, the Guardian, reported that Saudi officials have admitted that, in light of Iran's nuclear weapons program and the post-September 11 security environment, the Kingdom is considering a variety of national security policy options, one of which is the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Other press reports allege that then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz traveled to Pakistan in October 2003 and secured a secret agreement with President Pervez Musharraf, under which Pakistan will provide the Saudis with nuclear-weapons technology in exchange for cheap oil. Naturally, Pakistani and Saudi officials deny these reports, but both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have national interests consistent with such a course of actions. Pakistan needs money to support its military competition with India, while Saudi Arabia needs a deterrent to compete with Iran and Israel, and as a hedge against a distancing of security ties with the United States.
[America's top Iran negotiator Wendy] Sherman regularly briefs these allies after diplomatic talks with Iran, but in recent weeks those conversations have been different. 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—may be changing its mind. Riyadh has a long-standing interest in nuclear power. But Western and Israeli intelligence services are starting to see signs that this interest is growing more serious, and extends into nuclear enrichment. Until recently, the pursuit of nuclear enrichment—or the fuel cycle—was considered by arms control experts as a tell-tale sign of a clandestine weapons program. Nuclear fuel is sold to all members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but it’s far more costly to build the infrastructure and produce it indigenously. Saudi Arabia appears to be getting more serious about going down that path.
If Saudi Arabia pursue nuclear enrichment even if there is an Iran deal, then the victory to curb atomic weapons that Obama has tried to achieve will be at least partially undone by his own diplomacy.
“They view the developments in Iran very negatively. They have money, they can buy talent, they can buy training,” said David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former weapons inspector. “The Saudis are thinking through how do you create a deterrent through capability.”
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 ]