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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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.
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The conservative Saudi leadership strongly prefers stability – both at home and abroad – and there is no doubt that Saudi rulers fear that a nuclear- empowered Iran would threaten the Kingdom and the wider Middle East. But Saudi Arabia acquiring its own nuclear weapons could, on net, make the threat to stability worse, not better.70 Domestically, the Saudis would have to consider the prospect that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of violent jihadist extremists opposed to the regime.71 Regionally, the Kingdom would face the pos- sibility that Israel would strike Saudi facilities to prevent the emergence of another nuclear state in the region, just as Israel did in Iraq in 1981 and in Syria in 2007. (Indeed, the concern over triggering an Israeli attack may have been the primary reason the Kingdom did not respond in kind to Israel’s nuclear program.72) Even if Saudi Arabia could avoid being the target of a preventive strike, Riyadh would have to consider the risks associated with engaging in a nuclear arms race with Jerusalem and Tehran, including the possibility of nuclear crises that could pose a direct and immediate existential threat to the regime.
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The Kingdom is also much less likely to illic- itly acquire operational nuclear weapons from Pakistan than is commonly assumed. Despite longstanding rumors suggesting the existence of a clandestine Saudi-Pakistani nuclear deal, there are profound security and economic disincentives cutting against Riyadh’s motivation to seek a bomb from Islamabad – as well as considerable, though typically ignored, strategic and economic reasons for Pakistan to avoid an illicit transfer. Pakistan also faces significant, seldom-recognized imperatives to avoid diverting its strategic attention from India by providing a nuclear guarantee to the Kingdom. Furthermore, even if Islamabad proved willing to extend its nuclear umbrella, a potential U.S. nuclear guarantee would likely “out compete” a Pakistani alternative.
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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.
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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