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.
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.”
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Saudi Arabia has worked to restore diplomatic ties with Tehran that were ruptured by the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, but Tehran's possession of nuclear weapons is likely to cause discomfort in the kingdom. While the restoration of normal diplomatic relations appears on the surface to ease tensions, neither the Saudis nor the Iranians have abandoned their traditional aspirations to be the most influential nation-state in the Gulf. The Saudis are likely to view Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons as a substantial Iranian effort toward politically and militarily dominating the Gulf. The Saudis probably would suffer a sense of political humiliation that the Iranians have the political prestige or reputation for power that accompanies nuclear weapons.
While Saudi Arabia has long advocated a nuclear-free Middle East, its leaders are doubtful that the completed accord on limiting Tehran’s nuclear program will stop Iran from becoming a threshold nuclear-weapons power when proposed restrictions on is number of centrifuges and uranium stockpiles expire in 10 years. They also aren’t willing to bet that the regime in Tehran will somehow become more moderate and responsible by then, a hope entertained by many in the West.
“We prefer a region without nuclear weapons. But if Iran does it, nothing can prevent us from doing it too, not even the international community,” said Abdullah al Askar, a member and former chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Saudi Arabia’s advisory legislature.
“Our leaders will never allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon while we don’t,” added Ibrahim al-Marie, a retired Saudi colonel and a security analyst in Riyadh. “If Iran declares a nuclear weapon, we can’t afford to wait 30 years more for our own—we should be able to declare ours within a week.”
Part of the reason for this sense of urgency is that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies are increasingly battling mainly Shiite Iran in proxy conflicts across the region, from Syria to Yemen.
Besides their fears of a nuclear Iran dominating the Middle East one day, they are fretting that the agreement would dramatically tilt the regional balance of power in Tehran’s favor already in the immediate future, especially once the removal of international sanctions revitalizes the Iranian economy and gives it access to more than $100 billion in frozen overseas assets. They also increasingly distrust the U.S., the traditional guarantor of Gulf security.
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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
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 ]