Saudi Arabia unlikely to pursue nuclear weapons if Iran goes nuclear
While the Saudis would be highly motivated to acquire some form of nuclear deterrent to counter an Iranian bomb, they would face significant strategic disincentives and technical barriers. Similarily, Pakistan would face strategic disincentives for assisting Saudi Arabia with its nuclear weapons program, despite their close ties. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia is more likely to continue to develop its nuclear energy capacity while using the threat of a nuclear program to secure security guarantees from the U.S. or Pakistan.
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It is widely assumed that Saudi Arabia would respond to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by embarking on a crash program to develop their own bomb or by illicitly receiving nuclear weap- ons from its close ally Pakistan. If these options were not available, most analysts believe that the Saudis would be successful in securing a nuclear umbrella from Islamabad, including the possible deployment of Pakistani nuclear weapons on Saudi soil. These scenarios have been repeated so often in Washington and elsewhere that they have assumed a taken-for-granted quality.
Yet none of these outcomes represent the most likely Saudi response to a nuclear-armed Iran. The Saudis would be highly motivated to acquire some form of nuclear deterrent to counter an Iranian bomb. However, significant disincentives – including the prospect of worsening Saudi Arabia’s security environment, rupturing strategic ties with the United States, damaging the country’s international reputation and making the Kingdom the target of sanctions – would discourage a mad rush by Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons. And, in any case, Saudi Arabia lacks the technological and bureaucratic wherewithal to do so any time in the foreseeable future. Saudi Arabia is more likely to respond to Iranian nuclearization by continuing to bolster its conventional defenses against Iranian aggression while engaging in a long-term hedging strategy designed to improve civilian nuclear capabilities.
Pakistan has avoided openly taking the Saudi side in that competition. Faced with security concerns on its Indian and Afghan borders, Pakistan has no need for a contentious third border with Iran. Pakistan and Iran share a common interest in suppressing their adjoining Baloch separatist movements. During the Afghan civil wars in the 1990s Pakistan and Iran were actively backing opposing forces yet managed to avoid a direct military face-off. Greatly feared in Pakistan is that an alienated Iran might retaliate by aggravating sectarian tensions in Pakistan, much as it did in 1980s. Testifying to Iran’s desire to also maintain a reasonably normal relationship is its reluctance in recent years to criticize Pakistan’s security policies, despite a spike in domestic violence by Sunni extremists against segments of Pakistan’s Shi‘a community of 40 million.
Pakistan has other motives for preferring to keep relations with Iran harmonious. To help address its severe energy deficit, Pakistan is anxious to see the construction of a pipeline that can supplement its Saudi oil imports with gas from Iranian fields. Despite vigorous opposition by the Saudis and Americans that has stymied a deal with Tehran, the project has acquired new life with the prospect of Chinese financing. Joint investments for improving rail, road, and sea links are being discussed. On the same day that Prime Minster Sharif was visiting Riyadh to assuage Saudi feelings over Yemen, the governments of Pakistan and Iran were announcing their intentions to boost bilateral trade fivefold. Their cooperation could also go far in ensuring the survival of an Afghan state in which both have a growing stake.
Oh, please! Saudi Arabia isn’t going to build a nuclear weapon. Saudi Arabia can’t build a nuclear weapon. Saudi Arabia hasn’t even built a car. (By 2017, after much effort, the country is expected to manufacture its first automobile.)
Saudi Arabia can dig holes in the ground and pump out oil but little else. Oil revenue is about 45 percent of its gross domestic product, a staggeringly high figure, much larger than petro-states such as Nigeria and Venezuela. It makes up almost 90 percent of the Saudi government’s revenue. Despite decades of massive government investment, lavish subsidies and cheap energy, manufacturing is less than 10 percent of Saudi GDP.
Where would Saudi Arabia train the scientists to work on its secret program? The country’s education system is backward and dysfunctional, having been largely handed over to its puritanical and reactionary religious establishment. The country ranks 73rd in the quality of its math and science education, according to the World Economic Forum — abysmally low for a rich country. Iran, despite 36 years of sanctions and a much lower per capita GDP, fares far better at 44.
And who would work in Saudi Arabia’s imagined nuclear industry? In a penetrating book, Karen Elliott House, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, describes the Saudi labor market: “One of every three people in Saudi Arabia is a foreigner. Two out of every three people with a job of any sort are foreign. And in Saudi Arabia’s anemic private sector, fully nine out of ten people holding jobs are non-Saudi. . . . Saudi Arabia, in short, is a society in which all too many men do not want to work at jobs for which they are qualified; in which women by and large aren’t allowed to work; and in which, as a result, most of the work is done by foreigners.”
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Saudi Arabia would face similar, though stronger temptations, than Egypt. Saudi Arabia is arguably the other 'great power' of the Persian Gulf region, and thus a natural competitor with Iran. With the demise of Iraq, it is the undisputed leader of the Arab states in the Gulf, and thus a rival to an Iran trying to expand its sphere of influence. Due to their proximity, Iran and Saudi Arabia are vulnerable to one another's conventional military power. Saudi Arabia likely views itself as the protector of Sunni Arabs from Shia Arabs, and from Shia Iran. Saudi Arabia does not, however, have a developed nuclear science and technology effort. And it does not have the other industrial capabilities needed to support a nuclear weapons program and associated delivery systems. Saudi Arabia would thus take quite a long time to develop its own nuclear forces, and like Egypt, would be vulnerable in the interval. They would have to rely on an external guarantee, and the guarantor probably would not want to be a party to any nuclear program. With its wealth, however, it cannot be ruled out that the Saudis would simply try to buy nuclear weapons. They would need more than a few to compete with an Iranian program, and they would need delivery systems. Pakistan seems the only possible source, but it is under a great deal of scrutiny. Pakistan would face enormous pressure not to transfer complete weapons to another party. Finally, Saudi Arabia does have good reason to believe that outsiders are committed to its security. The United States and other great powers have extensive economic and military interests in maintaining Saudi security. The United States has demonstrated its commitment in many ways, including war. The Saudis are accustomed to security cooperation with the United States. A U.S. guarantee likely would prove the most attractive option for Saudi Arabia.
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Notably, both sides have worked diligently to preserve some modicum of cooperation and prevent the deterioration of the relationship even as regional tensions have escalated significantly. Tehran has repeatedly dispatched envoys to Riyadh over the past several years to assuage concerns, including former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, the supreme leader's personal advisor on foreign affairs, who first embarked on a damage control mission after Ahmadinejad's outrageous performance at the December 2005 Organization of the Islamic Conference summit. As Ali Larijani acknowledged, "We do have our disagreements in certain areas, but overall the relations between Iran and Saudi are very dignified with excellent underpinning." Despite their profound trepidations about Iran, the Saudis have signaled that they are not prepared to lead an anti-Iranian coalition. Riyadh has hosted Ahmadinejad several times, including for the December 2007 hajj pilgrimage – a first for a sitting Iranian president and remarkable given the Saudis' traditional consternation over Iranian troublemaking at the pilgrimage. Riyadh also undoubtedly sanctioned another unprecedented act of regional comity, Ahmadinejad's participation in the annual summit of the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council in December 2007, where he proposed a regional security pact and new economic cooperation between Iran and its Gulf rivals. At the same time, however, the Saudis have agreed to massive new arms sales from Washington and have greatly intensified their diplomatic efforts in Lebanon and elsewhere to combat Iran's sway.
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Among the Gulf states, the only one that could conceivably choose either of these alternatives is Saudi Arabia. Thanks to its long and close relationship with nuclear- capable Pakistan, Saudi Arabia might be able to develop a nuclear capability with Pakistan’s active support. However, barring the direct transfer of the weapons themselves, this is an option with many obstacles; the development of a nuclear infrastructure is difficult and time-consuming. Moreover, Saudi Arabia lacks the scientific manpower to develop and maintain such infrastructure. It might take at least a full decade before such a project could materialize, if at all.8 Iran, which has a strong group of nuclear scientists and engineers, has required more than a decade to develop its enriched uranium project, even with significant assistance from the A.Q. Khan network. All of this might lead Saudi Arabia to prefer formal guarantees, including strong extended deterrence commitments, from the United States. (However, public opposition to closer overt military relations with the United States might lead the Saudi regime to seek only low-visibility US commitments.) Hints that Saudi Arabia would seek a nuclear weapons capability could either be interpreted as valid indications of intent, or as an effort to apply pressure on the United States to act against Iran. Either way, because of the difficulties associated with developing a nuclear capability, Saudi Arabia would likely need a US defense guarantee, and the US would most probably oppose an independent Saudi nuclear deterrent.9
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More concerning than the possibility of bandwagoning is the risk of the Gulf States—particularly Saudi Arabia—seeking to bal- ance against a nuclear-armed Iran by developing nuclear weapons of their own. The Saudis have, in fact, suggested that they would seek to acquire nuclear weapons should Iran do so.42 The further spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East would be regionally destabilizing, would pose a threat to Israel as well as the United States, and could undermine the international nonproliferation regime. The United States would need to address this concern with a mix of reassurances that it will stand by its allies and warnings that a Saudi nuclear program would be detrimental to U.S. interests and disruptive for U.S. relations in the region. The United States also could offer civilian nuclear cooperation and other economic inducements in return for strong nonpro- liferation guarantees. The United States has already developed such an arrangement with the UAE, which agreed to strict IAEA safeguards in return for American nuclear assistance.43 The United States has used similar leverage with South Korea in the past to discourage the ROK from developing the nuclear fuel cycle or a weapons program.44
After contributing financially to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program and defense sector, the Saudis may want Islamabad to return the favor, some observers believe. The Saudi leadership plays along with suggestions it may acquire nuclear technology from Pakistan. In March 2015, King Salman bin Abdulaziz urgently summoned Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Riyadh to discuss strategic cooperation efforts, while calling for Pakistani involvement in Saudi efforts in Yemen. This was intended to remind nuclear weapons state negotiators that Riyadh is keeping its nuclear options open.
But it is unlikely the Saudis will get a nuclear weapon from Pakistan. Pakistan—which covertly developed its nuclear arsenal outside the nuclear nonproliferation regime—aims to normalize its nuclear status, rather than becoming further alienated from the international community. Islamabad was already singled out for the activities of the world's biggest and most successful illicit nuclear trafficking network, led by a key figure in its nuclear weapons program, A.Q. Khan. What’s more, Islamabad is extremely proud of its nuclear achievements. In the words of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, “We will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own [bomb].” Pakistanis didn’t eat grass, but they endured a great deal of hardship to get the bomb. The program was extremely costly for the country. So, it’s no surprise that many Pakistani officials and former officials take issue with assertions that their country might give nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Even if Pakistan agreed to provide the Kingdom with the bomb, the Saudis are very unlikely to go through with such an acquisition. Saudi Arabia is dependent on the United States for security guarantees. As long as Washington remains Riyadh’s main security guarantor, it has the power to influence Saudi decision making on other issues, including, specifically, nuclear weapon acquisition. And the Kingdom would find it very difficult to attract another country willing to supply the security and trade guarantees that the United States now provides. It is hard to imagine any of the world's major powers agreeing to be viewed as a supporter of nuclear proliferation.
Meanwhile, Riyadh’s nuclear-power program remains in its nascent stages. Saudi Arabia currently has no nuclear-power plants. Last month, a Saudi energy official announced that a key milestone to install 17 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2032 would be delayed by eight years to 2040 . Saudi Arabia’s official position is that it would choose not to enrich or reprocess, capabilities for which it has no near-term practical need. A May 2008 U.S.-Saudi memorandum  of understanding on nuclear energy cooperation declared: “Saudi Arabia has stated its intent to rely on international markets for nuclear fuel and to not pursue sensitive nuclear technologies.”
Going back on this pledge in response to a comprehensive deal with Iran would cause much consternation in Washington, including possibly making Riyadh the target of U.S. sanctions. Though Saudi Arabia has expressed concern about U.S. policy toward Iran and other regional-security challenges, such as the Syrian civil war, there is no other country—or technology—that Riyadh’s leaders can turn to that can provide the same level of proven support and protection. In addition, Saudi moves to develop an indigenous fuel-making capability could prompt Iran to reconsider its commitment to the deal. Were the deal to collapse under these circumstances, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reconstitute a sanctions regime to punish and isolate Iran.
To the extent Saudi Arabia engages in nuclear hedging in response to a nuclear deal, racing to develop an enrichment capability is unlikely to be its first choice. Instead, Riyadh is more likely to develop its civilian nuclear program, which has scarcely gotten of the ground.
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Conventional wisdom holds that the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran would spark an inevitable proliferation cascade across the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia the prime candidate to follow Iran into the nuclear club. It is widely believed that the Kingdom would be hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons; if Saudi Arabia proved unable to build the bomb itself, it would acquire nuclear weapons or a nuclear umbrella from Pakistan.
On all these counts, the conventional wisdom is probably wrong. Throughout the nuclear age, nuclear restraint has been the norm not the excep- tion, and the Kingdom is not likely to buck this historical pattern. The Saudis would be highly motivated to acquire some form of nuclear deterrent to counter an Iranian bomb, but significant disincentives would weigh against a mad rush by Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons. In any case, they lack the technological and bureaucratic wherewithal to do so any time in the foreseeable future. Nor is Saudi Arabia likely to illicitly acquire operational nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Despite rumors of a clandestine nuclear deal, there are profound disincentives for Riyadh to acquire a bomb from Islamabad – and considerable, though typically ignored, reasons for Pakistan to avoid an illicit transfer. Instead, Saudi Arabia would likely pursue a more aggressive version of its current conventional defense and civilian nuclear hedg- ing strategy while seeking out an external nuclear security guarantee from either Pakistan or the United States. And ultimately, a potential U.S. nuclear guarantee would likely prove more fea- sible and attractive to the Saudis than a Pakistani alternative.
The author counters fears that Saudi Arabia might pursue a nuclear weapon in response to the Iranian nuclear deal, finding that "[t]he Iran deal may have indeed alarmed the Saudi regime into unleashing is propagandists into nuclear grandstanding but the country had missed the opportunity of a real nuclear programme a long time ago. Re-opening that window again can and will take many more years."
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The author argues that the Saudi threat to pursue nuclear capabilities if the deal passes is a bluff to procure more support from the U.S. as the kingdom does not have the capacity to follow through.
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The author argues that Saudi Arabia's threats that it will pursue a nuclear weapon following Iran are mere bluster from a country that "hasn’t even built a car."
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Pakistan ruled out sharing its nuclear weapons with Saudi Arabia, insisting Thursday that the atomic arsenal would continue serving solely for the country's national defence even as world powers and Iran near a possible nuclear agreement.
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The author calls into question the belief that Saudi Arabia could rely on Pakistan for nuclear assistance if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, arguing that this line of thinking "overlooks the priority that Pakistan gives to its own perceived national interests and how heavily neighboring Iran weighs in its strategic calculus."
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