Why Reports of Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Ambitions are a Fantasy

12.02.13

Why Reports of Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Ambitions are a Fantasy

12.02.13
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Just prior to Iran’s nuclear negotiator’s sitting down with their counterparts from the P5+1 in Geneva, BBC Newsnight published a report shedding light on the existence of a nuclear understanding between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Since Saudi Arabia’s desire to attain nuclear weapons is not without precedent (the Guardian put forward a similar claim in 2003) analysts could not entirely discount the possibility of Saudi Arabian nuclear proliferation. A nuclear-armed Iran concerns Saudi Arabia and the region, and thus, if Iran develops nuclear weapons other countries will follow suit. “All options are available,” said Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, regarding preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. Nevertheless, there are a number of compelling reasons to believe why the story behind Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions is fantasy.

BBC Newsnight’s Defense Editor, Mark Urban, referenced his principal source, an anonymous Western official. Surprisingly, he concluded that Saudi Arabia would be able to acquire nuclear weapons sooner than Iran. “Saudi Arabia has invested in Pakistani nuclear weapons projects, and believes it could obtain atomic bombs at will, a variety of sources have told BBC Newsnight,” writes the BBC’s Mark Urban. Seemingly, Urban connected the dots between Saudi Arabia’s generous investment in Pakistan’s nuclear program and Saudi Arabian acquisition of Pakistani nuclear technology. Harvard Professor Matthew Bunn cautiously labeled Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation a “plausible theory” given that there is hardly any solid evidence vis-à-vis the Saudi Arabian nuclear program for a military purpose. Shannon Kile with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute acknowledged the “lack of authoritative or publicly available evidence.”

One of the sources behind this could have been veteran U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross’s confirmation that in a meeting in April, 2009 Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah reiterated his intentions to obtain nuclear weapons if Iran gets their own. “Since 2009, when King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia warned visiting US special envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross that if Iran crossed the threshold, ‘we will get nuclear weapons,’ the kingdom has sent the Americans numerous signals of its intentions,” Urban reports.

The failure of the UN Security Council to make the Middle East a nuclear free zone is one of the reasons that Saudi Arabia rejected a seat on the council. However, Saudi Arabia must take into account the risks of developing their own weapons program. Saudi Arabia must understand that by developing their own program this will only encourage Iran to fast track their own program and it will undoubtedly trigger a nuclear arm race with Israel and may tempt Turkey to follow suit soon after. “The thought of a multinuclear Middle East is a nightmare scenario that no one, I believe, knows how to handle,” said Charles Freilich, the former deputy National Security Adviser of Israel.

The Israeli Issue

In its own bid to keep its neighbors nuclear free, Israel unleashed airstrikes on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities in 1981 and 2007 respectively. Even today, Israeli officials threaten to unilaterally bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Clearly, Israel will not be comfortable to coexist with another nuclear-armed Gulf nation. Today, both Saudi Arabia and Israel are publicly criticizing any possible U.S. rapprochement towards Iran. “Iran’s conciliatory words have to be matched by real actions – transparent, verifiable, meaningful actions. Iran is committed to Israel’s destruction,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly mused at a White House meeting with President Barack Obama.

There are reports claiming a possible Saudi-Israeli alliance aimed directly against Iran. According to Freilich, “Saudi Arabia has been comparatively moderate and restrained in its foreign policy over the years so it might not be viewed quite as negatively in Israel as an Iranian nuclear capability.” Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that a confrontation between the two nations can be prevented. Both societies are driven by somewhat orthodox religious values that fuel mistrust. Hence, in the long-term, the Saudi effort to obtain nuclear weapons, adds Freilich, “would be an extremely negative development from Israel’s point of view.”

The Pakistan Option Isn’t Viable

While the BBC’s Mark Urban would like to argue that this is the case, Pakistan is not prepared to hand over nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia in order to deter Iran. Should Pakistan decide to either help the Saudis develop their own nuclear program or transport a limited amount of their stockpile to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan would have to deal with the repercussions that would soon follow.

First, despite being a non-signatory nation to the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty), Pakistan would face sweeping sanctions in the process. Pakistan’s economy is already languishing. Therefore, Pakistan may not be able to withstand further economic constraints. Punitive measures from the United States alone could rupture Pakistan’s economy as U.S. aid is estimated to cover 6.5 percent of its annual budget. Floods of Saudi cash could offset this effect for a short period of time. “If the United States used its leverage at the World Bank or International Monetary Fund to attenuate the support of those institutions, Pakistan would be thrown into a major fiscal crisis,” suggested Christopher Clary and Mara E. Karlin.

Second, Pakistan shares a land border with Iran, but it does not consider Iran a threat. Pakistan’s nuclear strategy has never been Iran-centric instead it has chosen to focus its attention on India. Historically, Pakistan has enjoyed a semi-functional relationship with Iran. An ambitious tri-nation gas pipeline project has been under consideration in Islamabad after India refrained from advancing it due to U.S. pressure.

Finally, Pakistan’s ability to project its security umbrella over Saudi Arabia while maintaining its own is not a certainty. The country is estimated to only possess over a hundred nuclear warheads. Pakistan’s principal rival India has clearly surpassed Pakistan in developing conventional weaponry. That said; it is not certain how Pakistan will maintain its deterrence against India if it gives a portion of its nuclear stockpile to Saudi Arabia.

Economic Concerns

As a signatory to the NPT Saudi Arabia ratified Article II which states, “Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

As a party to the NPT Saudi Arabia must abide by international law. Collapsing the highly respected NPT portends a bleak future for international law, as many nations will attempt to become nuclear-armed by taking the same path as Saudi Arabia. In this regard, the West might target Saudi Arabia with sanctions. Because of that, if the global community somehow manages to impose energy sanctions on Saudi Arabia this would paralyze Saudi Arabia’s economy. Unlike Iran’s, the Saudi economy is less self-sufficient. Contributing 90 percent of the export earnings, the petroleum sector is the foundation of Saudi Arabia’s economy. Saudi Arabia’s enormous oil reserve makes the Kingdom vulnerable to potential sanctions.

It’s About Prestige

Saudi Arabia is a prestige-driven society. One of the major causes of their growing frustrations with the United States is that the Saudis find that their complaints often fall on deaf ears in Washington. Therefore, this prestige will make Saudi leadership think twice before they take any steps to go nuclear. Saudi Arabia could not tolerate other nations imposing sanctions on them. Additionally, Saudi Arabia would not want to become an international pariah like Iran or North Korea.

Apart from that, Saudi Arabia’s self-assumed status as the leader of the Islamic world would be put in jeopardy. According to Thomas Lippman, the now-deceased, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, declared that nuclear weapons ran counter to the tenets of Islam. Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of nuclear weapons would deepen anti-Saudi Arabia sentiment in the Muslim world. Attainment of nuclear weapons would afford national pride for Saudi Arabia, but at the cost of its status in the Muslim world.

Overcome with concerns over an Iranian nuclear weapons program, Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, if true, would be an important strategic victory for Iran. Iranians will regard this as a tacit sanction of their nuclear weapons program. Saudi bombs, according to Mr. Kile, “would almost certainly lead Israel to increase the size of its undeclared nuclear arsenal and would lead to calls inside Iran for it to build a nuclear weapon.” However, rhetoric aside, Saudi Arabia is astute enough not to let the Middle East tinderbox ignite. For this reason, they are expected to work in concert with Washington to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

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