The Saudi Nuclear Option

How many Of These Bastards Were From Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Nuclear Option
INSS Insight No. 176, April 26, 2010
Guzansky, Yoel

On the basis of a memo written by the US Secretary of Defense, the New York
Times reported recently that “the United States does not have an effective
long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear
capability.” On the same day, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia issued a royal
order establishing a science complex called King Abdullah City dedicated
solely to “research and development of all aspects of nuclear energy.”
Coincidence? Apparently. However, the steady progress made by Iran in its
nuclear program and the fact that so far America’s policy on the matter has
failed to prove itself have caused concern in Riyadh about relying
exclusively on possible American defense guarantees. Accordingly, what
options are open to Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis the reality of a nuclear Iran?
Intensify cooperation with the United States? Turn a blind eye and maintain
good neighborly relations with Iran? Or perhaps acquire its own nuclear
deterrence? Saudi Arabia’s concern that in certain scenarios it is liable to
find itself having to tackle a nuclear Iran by itself may lead it to examine
all the options.

Saudi Arabia may well understand that over time it is difficult, perhaps
impossible, to prevent a state such as Iran – that along with its
technological and economic capabilities made a strategic decision to develop
nuclear capability – from completing its mission: Tehran may have concluded
that its security constraints as well as the prestige and influence
associated with having such weapons outweigh the political and economic cost
it is paying and will continue to pay. Thus as early as 2006, at the annual
Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, along with the
other Gulf states, announced its interest in developing independent nuclear
programs for peaceful purposes. Though not made public, the primary
motivation was Iran’s nuclear ambition.

As the leading Arab state in the Gulf (and given Egypt’s weakness, perhaps
the leading state in the Arab world) and the ideological-religious rival and
main competitor for regional influence with Iran, Saudi Arabia will find it
difficult to do nothing should Iran obtain military nuclear capability. As
early as 2003, Aharon Ze’evi Farkash, the former head of Israeli military
intelligence, reported to the Knesset’s Foreign Relations and Defense
Committee that “the Saudis are in contact with Pakistan for purchasing
nuclear warheads for the surface-to-surface missiles in their arsenal…They
have decided to act in order to redress the balance of terror vis-à-vis Iran’s
armament, and intend to deploy Pakistani warheads on their soil.”

Despite Saudi Arabia’s relative transparency and cooperation with the
international community on nuclear issues, there are more than a few doubts
as to its credibility, given that in the past it had very close relations
with Pakistan. More than once the claim has been made that Saudi Arabia was
in fact behind the financing of Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs.
After the Islamic Revolution and throughout the 1980s Pakistan stationed
military forces in Saudi Arabia and the two nations cooperated in assisting
the Afghani mujahidin. Therefore, should Saudi Arabia find itself in a
sensitive security situation, it may well be that it would seek to
capitalize on its investment in the Pakistani program.

These two Sunni nations located on either side of Iran have overlapping
interests: Pakistan has the knowledge and skilled manpower but lacks the
cash, while Saudi Arabia has vast cash reserves but lacks the relevant
infrastructures and skilled manpower. Saudi Arabia might seek to balance
Iran’s power by increasing cooperation, including in the nuclear field, with
a friend from the past, despite the political risks – primarily to its
relations with the United States – and the fact that this contradicts Saudi
international commitments and its own position favoring a nuclear-free
Middle East. If Pakistan stations nuclear weapons in the kingdom, Saudi
Arabia may not necessarily view this as an infringement of the NPT to which
it is a signatory, and certainly not if the weapons remain under Pakistani
control. Such a scenario is highly speculative and has been denied both in
Islamabad and Riyadh, but it cannot be rejected out of hand, especially if
Iran decides that the circumstances are right for it to “break out” for
nuclear weapons.

In face of the United States’ closed door, Saudi Arabia in the 1980s
secretly acquired several dozen Chinese CSS-2 surface-to-surface missiles.
Given their low precision, they are appropriate only for carrying nuclear
warheads. Yet even if they are somewhat outdated, they supply a base for
possible upgrade and for training professional teams. Future Saudi moves in
the field might also be secret, to avoid criticism and to prevent
embarrassing the United States. Recently, the Saudi press reported on
“upgrading the strategic missile reserves” and the inauguration of a new
command and control facility associated with the kingdom’s missile force.
Riyadh’s view that the Iranian threat is serious and immediate was recently
expressed by Foreign Minister al-Faisal: “Sanctions are a long-term
solution…But we are looking at an Iranian nuclear program within a shorter
term because we are closer to the locus of the threat. We are interested in
immediate rather than in gradual solutions.” Various developments therefore
may lead Saudi Arabia to accelerate its timetable, and along with or instead
of developing independent nuclear infrastructures, it is not inconceivable
that it would prefer buying turnkey components, enter into a military treaty
with Pakistan, and in certain scenarios, even deploy Pakistani nuclear
forces on Saudi soil because of the urgency and its lack of appropriate

The Saudi strategy perhaps depends most of all on if and how Iran crosses
the nuclear threshold. Iran is apparently entrenching its position as a
threshold state, which lends it some of the advantages attributed to nuclear
states and would allow it, when it deems convenient, to “break out.” Should
Iran not cross the nuclear threshold, Saudi Arabia may be able to turn a
blind eye and take symbolic action such as intensified coordination and
cooperation among the Gulf sates. However, should it become certain that
Iran is a nuclear state, e.g., through the proof of nuclear testing, Saudi
Arabia would feel obligated to acquire similar capability. Signaling that it
is prepared to go down this road may be an effective way of pressuring the
United States to demonstrate more strongly its commitment to defend the
Although in light of America’s superior capabilities it seems that Saudi
Arabia, at least for now, has no alternative but to rely on the United
States, it would be contrary to Saudi practice to put all its eggs in one
basket. It is reasonable to think that for its survival, the royal family
would seek to keep all options open. If in Riyadh’s view its essential
security interests are threatened and a clear and present danger to the
kingdom’s stability emerges, it may prefer to engage in a series of steps,
even if contradictory, to ensure its security.

Given its wealth and military weakness, Saudi Arabia would likely seek
security arrangements that would grant it more independence in decision
making and better chances of maintaining a stable balance of deterrence in
the Gulf over time. At present there is no solid evidence that Saudi Arabia
intends to go this route even though from its perspective the presence of
nuclear weapons in Iran would constitute a serious threat. There are not
many states that are as important to the United States as Saudi Arabia, and
the implications of “the Saudi option” may force the Americans to prove
actively that they are committed to defending the kingdom. Any other policy
might prompt a crisis between the two nations, and could have severe
ramifications for Israel’s strategic environment.

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