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Will the Saudis acquire a nuclear bomb of their own?

Jonathan Power


BBC’s defense correspondent Mark Urban has uncovered some troubling links between Iran moving towards a nuclear bomb and a Saudi Arabian decision to produce its own nuclear bomb with Pakistani help. Urban notes that Saudi Arabia has invested in Pakistani nuclear weapons project and now the Saudis believe they could obtain a nuclear bomb at will.

Twenty years ago I noted in my columns that the only way to explain Saudi Arabia's purchase of Chinese CSS-2 ballistic missiles was that the Saudis were preparing to develop a nuclear arsenal of their own if one day they felt the situation demanded it.

The Chinese missiles have a capacity to carry nuclear weapons. They are too inaccurate to be of use as conventional weapons. In the hands of the Saudis they are an insurance against Iran developing nuclear weapons. And they provide the Saudis with some balance against Israeli armory of some 200 nuclear weapons.

Saudi Arabia has recently completed a new base with missile launch rails align to Iran and Israel. According to the BBC, there is some evidence that the Pakistanis might have already set aside a number of warheads for delivery to Saudi Arabia.

Last month Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, told a conference that if Iran got the bomb the Saudis will not wait one month. They have already paid for the bomb by funding its development. They will go to Pakistan and bring back what they need to bring.

Four years ago King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia warned a visiting American envoy, Dennis Ross, that if Iran crossed the threshold the Saudis will get nuclear weapons. Gary Samore, who was Barack Obama's counter-proliferation advisor until last year, told the BBC, that he thought that the Saudis believe that they have some understanding with Pakistan, that in the extreme, they would have claims to acquire nuclear weapons.

In his semi-official book, Eating the Grass, Major General Feroz Hassan Khan, of Pakistani nuclear program, acknowledged that Saudi Arabia provided generous financial aid to Pakistan that enabled the nuclear program to continue.

The Saudis recently showed how estranged they are from US and European Union policies. In an unprecedented protest they refused to take up their Security Council seat. The easing of US negotiating position with Iran in Saudi thinking is a step backwards and would allow the Iranians to continue to prepare to make a bomb.

For years the Saudis have felt they and the US have been moving apart. They were against the toppling of Iraq dictator, Saddam Hussein. They are giving financial support to the new military regime in Egypt, putting them at odds with the US which has reduced some of its aid. They feel the US is becoming too easygoing with Iran. They have been deeply unhappy about US policy towards Israel. Indeed, US Secretary of State, John Kerry's no-holds-barred lecturing of Benjamin Netanyahu, on his settlement policy on Arab land, may have been partly to placate Saudi Arabia as the US prepared for substantive negotiations with Iran.

The Saudis also point out they are a member in good standing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and have argued for years that there should be a Middle East Nuclear-Free Zone, as there is in Latin America. (Brazil and Argentina shut down their nuclear bomb plans.) The US has never supported this, making nonsense of its adherence to the NPT.

If the Saudis do get its hands on Pakistani nukes the US would have no choice but to punish Pakistan with severe sanctions. But the Saudis would then step in with financial assistance.

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry describes the above as speculative, mischievous and baseless. Certainly there would be many within the Pakistan establishment, including the army, who would argue for Pakistan to hold back from helping the Saudis. I suspect the respected Sartaj Aziz, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's foreign policy advisor, with whom I have discussed nuclear issues, would be one of these.

These are the complicated and convoluted shifting sands in the nuclear game. Can't the Saudis be persuaded that it is in their own interest for the West to forge a deal with Iran? The fact is there are good reasons for not taking any risks in securing an Iranian agreement by pitching US and EU demands too high. The US and the EU have no choice, whatever Saudi Arabia says and whatever plans it has of putting warheads on its rockets, but to be flexible in their negotiations with Iran.