Next week officials from the P5-1 Group (UNSC Permanent Members: United States, United Kingdom, France, Russian Federation, and China; plus Germany) will meet with Iranian negotiators in Kazakhstan for the latest in the ongoing dialogue over Tehran’s nuclear program. While Iran claims it is seeking enrichment of nuclear material for peaceful purposes, the P5+1 fears the program aims to produce nuclear materials ready for weaponization.
In September SUSRIS provided a report on signs that Iran was “not providing the necessary cooperation” and the IAEA “is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities,” according to global nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. [Iranian Nuclear Weapons Breakout: The New IAEA Report] The IAEA report led Dr. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies to conclude, “the IAEA reports Iranian actions that raise growing questions about whether Iran will ever agree to meaningful disclosure, inspection, and other verification measures covering its overall nuclear efforts.”
This week SUSRIS highlighted an addition to the collection of material that informs conversations about the challenge from Iran with Dr. Cordesman’s report, “Securing the Gulf: Key Threats and Options for Enhanced Cooperation.” In it he reviewed security threats to Gulf states chief among them being the Iranian threat, especially as the nuclear challenge unfolds. He noted, “The Arab Gulf states are already making major progress in developing suitable deterrent and war fighting capabilities which offer the best hope of pushing Iran into meaningful negotiations, as well as containing it in any conflict if it begins.”
Many discussions about the consequences of Iranian nuclearization include conversation about regional proliferation, especially among Gulf states with Saudi Arabia typically the first case mentioned. The “conventional wisdom” presumes Saudi Arabia will seek a nuclear weapon as a counter to an Iranian nuclear capability. This week a new study — “Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?,” from the Center for a New American Security — acknowledges that “it is taken for granted in Washington that Saudi Arabia will inevitably pursue nuclear weapons if Tehran succeeds in its quest for the bomb,” however, it argues that “prospects for Saudi reactive proliferation are lower than the conventional wisdom suggests.” The report was produced by Dr. Colin H. Kahl, a Senior Fellow at CNAS and an associate professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service; CNAS Visiting Fellow Melissa G. Dalton; and CNAS Research Associate Matthew Irvine.
Today we provide an excerpt, the Executive Summary from “Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?,” along with the link to the complete report.
In addition to the new report from Kahl, Dalton and Irvine at CNAS we suggest you review a report previously shared in SUSRIS from author Thomas Lippman on “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Policy,” that appeared in August of 2011. It was an update to a policy brief he wrote for the Middle East Institute in 2008. In it Lippman disputes the notion that Saudi Arabia would seek a nuclear weapon and lays out the “compelling reasons” why Riyadh would forsake that capability. When SUSRIS talked with Lippman about this week’s “Atomic Kingdom” report he said he appreciated being “validated” in his position and that if belief in Saudi reactive pursuit of a weapon was “conventional wisdom,” that “it was not his fault.” Lippman did tell SUSRIS he differed with the CNAS report’s suggestion that Saudi Arabia would seek a “nuclear defense guarantee from the United States.” Lippman noted that, “Any such arrangement would require Senate ratification, and the chances of that are slim to none.”
We are pleased to provide Thomas Lippman’s updated policy brief (2011) paper here, following the “Atomic Kingdom” excerpt.
Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?
Dr. Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine | Center for New American Security
This report, the second in a series assessing the potential consequences of Iranian nuclearization, examines the likelihood that Saudi Arabia will pursue nuclear weapons if Tehran succeeds in its quest for the bomb. We argue that the prospects of Saudi “reactive proliferation” are lower than the conventional wisdom suggests but that this should not reduce Washington’s commitment to preventing the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran.
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 weapons 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.
The Kingdom is also much less likely to illicitly 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.
Still, none of this is a reason to be sanguine about Saudi Arabia’s reaction to a nuclear-armed Iran. The risks of the worst-case Saudi proliferation scenarios are lower than many contend, but they are not zero, and even a small risk of a Middle East with multiple nuclear powers should be avoided. Moreover, the most likely means of preventing a future Saudi bomb involves the provision of external nuclear guarantees that are themselves costly and undesirable in many respects.
About the Center for a New American Security
The mission of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) is to develop strong, pragmatic and principled national security and defense policies. Building on the expertise and experience of its staff and advisors, CNAS engages policymakers, experts and the public with innovative, fact-based research, ideas and analysis to shape and elevate the national security debate. A key part of our mission is to inform and prepare the national security leaders of today and tomorrow. CNAS is located in Washington, and was established in February 2007 by co-founders Kurt M. Campbell and Michèle A. Flournoy. CNAS is a 501(c)3 tax-exempt nonprofit organization. Its research is independent and non-partisan. CNAS does not take institutional positions on policy issues. CNAS is led by its President Richard Fontaine and Executive Vice President and Director of Studies Kristin Lord.
Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Policy – Lippman
August 5, 2011
Saudi Arabia and the United States are starting talks on a civilian nuclear power trade agreement [see SUSRIS Special Section] based on a memorandum of understanding signed in 2008. The news has touched off criticism and concern over the potential for nuclear technology intended for peaceful purposes being used as building blocks in a weapons program. The debate is certain to intensify as the outlines of an agreement become clearer.
In 2008 author, journalist and scholar Thomas Lippman wrote a comprehensive policy brief for the Middle East Institute that provided background and context for Saudi incentives and disincentives in pursuing a weapon program. This week we asked him to refresh the brief. Today we are pleased to provide his updated analysis which will serve as a primer on this issue and a guide to the strategic and political realities Riyadh faces on the question of nuclear proliferation. We thank Mr. Lippman for sharing this important paper with you and look forward to the release of his next book on Saudi Arabia in early 2012.
Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Policy
Thomas W. Lippman
Despite its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia faces severe, long-term domestic energy shortages that it plans to address through the development of nuclear power. President George W. Bush agreed in 2008 to help the Saudis do this, and in the past two years the kingdom has reached nuclear consulting agreements with several countries. Now news reports that Saudi Arabia is preparing to begin negotiations with the United States on a formal nuclear cooperation treaty have predictably touched off speculation about the Kingdom’s true intentions and about whether commercial nuclear energy could become a pathway to the development of nuclear weapons.
It is widely believed among policymakers and strategic analysts in Washington and in many Middle Eastern capitals that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will feel compelled to do the same — a belief that was reinforced when King Abdullah, in a WikiLeaks cable, was reported to have told American officials this outcome would be inevitable.
In some ways this belief makes sense because Saudi Arabia is as vulnerable as it is rich, and it has long felt threatened by the revolutionary ascendancy of Iran, its Shi‘ite rival across the Gulf. Publication in late 2007 of portions of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate reporting that Iran had abandoned a program to weaponize nuclear devices in 2003 did not put an end to the speculation about a Saudi Arabian response; the NIE made clear that Iran was continuing its effort to master the uranium enrichment process, and could resume a weapons program on short notice.
It is highly unlikely, however, that Saudi Arabia would wish to acquire its own nuclear arsenal or that it is capable of doing so. King Abdullah’s comments should not be taken as a dispositive statement of considered policy. There are compelling reasons why Saudi Arabia would not undertake an effort to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, even in the unlikely event that Iran achieves a stockpile and uses this arsenal to threaten the Kingdom.
Money is not an issue — if destitute North Korea can develop nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia surely has the resources to pursue such a program. With oil prices above $90 a barrel, Riyadh is flush with cash. But the acquisition or development of nuclear weapons would be provocative, destabilizing, controversial and extremely difficult for Saudi Arabia, and ultimately would be more likely to weaken the kingdom than strengthen it. The kingdom has committed itself to an industrialization and economic development program that depends on open access to global markets and materials; becoming a nuclear outlaw would be fatal to those plans.
Pursuing nuclear weapons would be a flagrant violation of Saudi Arabia’s commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and would surely cause a serious breach with the United States. Saudi Arabia lacks the industrial and technological base to develop such weapons on its own. An attempt to acquire nuclear weapons by purchasing them, perhaps from Pakistan, would launch Saudi Arabia on a dangerously inflammatory trajectory that could destabilize the entire region, which Saudi Arabia’s leaders know would not be in their country’s best interests. The Saudis always prefer stability to turmoil. Their often-stated official position is that the entire Middle East should become an internationally supervised region free of all weapons of mass destruction.
SAUDI ARABIA AND THE NPT
Saudi Arabia, like Iran, is a signatory to the NPT and participates in the safeguard regime of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It signed the treaty only under duress, but its reluctance was not based on a desire to develop nuclear weapons. The Kingdom’s position was that it would be happy to join the NPT system when Israel did so. But then in 1988 it was virtually forced to sign the NPT because of intense pressure from the United States.
Although it was a longtime strategic partner of the United States and a Cold War bulwark against communism, Saudi Arabia incurred the wrath of the administration of President Ronald Reagan by clandestinely acquiring at least 36 CSS-2 intermediate range ballistic missiles from China. (Some estimates put the number as high as 60.) The missiles, behemoths weighing nearly 70 tons with a range of about 1900 miles, were stationed in remote areas of the Kingdom and maintained by Chinese crews. Washington was not informed, and learned of the deployment only by accident. The Saudis declined to permit American officials to inspect the missiles.
From the Saudi perspective the acquisition made sense. Elsewhere in the Gulf region, the ballistic missile era had already arrived. The Kingdom’s neighbors, Saddam Hussein’s secular, anti-monarchical Iraq and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s anti-Saudi revolutionary Iran, were at the time hammering each other with missiles in their long war; Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and of course Israel also had surface-to-surface missiles. Saudi Arabia, always insecure and fearful of encirclement, had no comparable capability.
There was no prospect of purchasing intermediate range missiles from Saudi Arabia’s preferred military supplier, the United States, because missiles that could strike Tehran also could reach Israel. The Saudis knew from the hostile reaction in Congress to their earlier efforts to acquire sophisticated weaponry that a ballistic missile sale would never be approved by Congress even if the Reagan administration endorsed it. China was under no such constraints as a vendor; and while the Chinese were communists and at that time not welcome even to visit vigorously anti-communist Saudi Arabia, they had no record of armed invasion of a Muslim country, as did the Soviet Union. As usual in Saudi Arabia, strategic self-interest trumped taboo.
From the American perspective, the Chinese missile deal appeared dangerous and destabilizing in several ways, even apart from the potential menace to Israel. It accelerated the Middle East missile race. It demonstrated a streak of independence and duplicity that Washington did not anticipate from Riyadh. It introduced China as an arms supplier to a country that had made opposition to communism a cornerstone of its long relationship with the United States. And most alarming, in all other known deployments, the CSS 2 carried nuclear warheads. Because of the CSS 2’s inaccuracy, it is of little use in striking specific targets, and therefore has military value only as a delivery system for nuclear, chemical, or biological warheads, for which precision targeting is much less important than it is for conventional weapons. The arrival of such missiles in Saudi Arabia was seen in Washington as an indication that the Saudis might be secretly pursuing nuclear weapons — perhaps even planning to allow other Arab countries to use them to attack Israel, deploying the feared “Islamic bomb.”
The Israelis warned that they might attack the missiles to preclude any possibility that they would face a nuclear-armed Arab foe — a serious concern for Washington, given that Israel had bombed a nuclear reactor (Osirak) in Iraq a few years earlier. American diplomats scrambled to pursue a complicated agenda with several moving parts: persuading the Israelis not to attack; making clear their displeasure with Saudi Arabia without disrupting an important strategic and commercial relationship; and persuading Congress not to cut off arms sales to the Saudis. According to the late Hume Horan, who was U.S. Ambassador in Riyadh at the time, “The Israelis told us, let it be known, that we better do something about those missiles or they would. We told the Saudis that there are nations in the area that are very concerned and threatening to take matters into their own hands.”
Discovery of the missiles ignited a predictable storm in Congress. Within a few weeks, bipartisan majorities in the House and the Senate had approved resolutions opposing the sale of ground support equipment for Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes the United States had sold to Saudi Arabia in 1981. The administration postponed formal notification to Congress of a new sale of $450 million worth of military equipment. Secretary of State George P. Shultz traveled to Riyadh to seek a gesture that would quell the anti-Saudi clamor — namely, accession to the NPT.
The United States was “highly concerned” about Saudi deployment of the CSS-2 missiles, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Richard Murphy told Congress at the time, because “We had known it only in its nuclear capable mode in China.” According to Murphy, who had previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, “The Saudis took what was available in deciding to join the group of missile-possessing states in the region that included Iran, Iraq, Syria, as well as North Yemen and Egypt, among others. Iran’s repeated use of missiles against Kuwait and the firing of a Scud missile at Kuwait’s oil facilities on April 20, 1988, as well as attacks upon Iraq and reports about possible attacks upon Saudi targets simply underscored the justification in Saudi eyes for their acquisition of a system to counter missiles in unfriendly hands.”
Murphy told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the Saudis “have assured us, at the level of the King, that they do not have and they have no intention of acquiring either nuclear or chemical warheads.” The assurances took the form of a letter from King Fahd to President Reagan, Murphy said. The decision to sign the NPT represented “a change in longstanding Saudi policy and a serious international commitment which should further assure neighboring countries of Saudi Arabia’s ultimate interest in stability in the region,” Murphy told the committee.
The storm passed when Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States, negotiated a deal: Saudi Arabia could keep the missiles provided it signed the NPT, which it then did. The Saudis do not want a repetition of that angry confrontation with Washington. On the contrary, nearly two decades later, the policies of Riyadh and Washington on this issue seem to have converged. On July 31, 2007, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Saudi Arabia, along with the United States, Egypt and Jordan, issued a communiqué that said: “Recognizing the grave threat posed to regional and global security by weapons of mass destruction, and wishing to avoid a destabilizing nuclear arms race in the region, the participants concur that it is important to achieve the universality of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and for all parties to comply with it fully … The participants recognize the goal of a zone free of nuclear weapons on the Middle East.” That statement could have been drafted in Riyadh. The call for “universality” of the NPT could only have been aimed at Israel, the only non-signatory country in the region, and the call for full compliance was aimed at Iran.
The same communiqué recognized the right of NPT members to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, as the Iranians say they are doing. As the statement shows, Saudi Arabia is not opposed to nuclear development for commercial or scientific uses. The following year, during his last trip to Riyadh as president, Bush signed the agreement to help the Saudis with commercial nuclear development, a move that attracted little public notice at the time.
Not much happened on that front until last year, when King Abdullah created the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy and charged it with developing long-term projects in nuclear and solar energy. This institution incorporated an existing Atomic Energy Research Institute, which is based just outside Riyadh. Little has been written about this Institute in the mainstream press, but it was not clandestine; its research projects and the names and telephone numbers of its scientists were published on the web site of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology.
I visited this institute in the late spring of 2004 and met with some of its scientists; they answered all my questions about their work, which related to nuclear physics and nuclear materials, not to weapons, although of course some of the information would be relevant to a weapons programs. The institute was established in 1988, with this announced goal: “To adapt the nuclear sciences and technologies and utilize them in support of the economic, industrial, and agricultural plans of the Kingdom.”
Over the past decade, a handful of Saudi scientists have published peer-reviewed papers on such topics in professional journals and presented papers at international nuclear energy conferences, often in collaboration with scientists from Taiwan, a far more technologically advanced society. There has been no indication that these studies are anything more than academic exercises, or that Saudi Arabia has been importing nuclear scientists from other countries.
All that being said, a cardinal rule of intelligence and threat assessment is that one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know; it is theoretically possible that Saudi Arabia has a clandestine development or acquisition program that has eluded detection by the most rigorous analysts. As closely as Saudi Arabia has been linked to the United States for more than 50 years, there have been several episodes, in addition to the CSS-2 affair, in which the Saudis have been less than candid with the Americans and less than forthcoming with information. These include the investigation of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing and the initial response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. No possibility should be ruled out on the basis that no American has ever come across it.
There is a certain plausibility to the idea that Saudi Arabia might aspire to have at least a small nuclear capacity as a deterrent to aggression. There appears to be no possibility that Saudi Arabia — so long as it is ruled by the al-Saud family — would ever consider nuclear weapons for aggressive purposes because the Kingdom has not threatened any of its neighbors since the last border issues were settled decades ago, but deterrence is another matter. While the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein eliminated a hostile government in neighboring Iraq, the Kingdom’s strategic weaknesses have not been ameliorated since the Chinese missiles were deployed in 1988, and its capacity to defend itself against the most powerful of its potentially hostile neighbors, Iran, is open to question.
With territory of more than 800,000 square miles, Saudi Arabia is a vast country, four times the size of France. Its capital, Riyadh, is in the center of the country, but otherwise its population centers and economic assets are concentrated along the Persian Gulf and Red Sea coasts. The oil installations that provide most of the country’s revenue and the desalination plants that produce 70% of its drinking water are visible, vulnerable targets that could be devastated in short order by air assault or seaborne attack. Despite Saudi Arabia’s large territory, it would be difficult for the population and the armed forces to retreat from the coasts and regroup in the interior because the interior is virtually uninhabitable; cut off the from the coasts, the Saudis would be without food or water. Military supply lines would be severed. Moreover, Western military analysts agree that despite its multi-billion dollar purchases of military equipment over the past 30 years, Saudi Arabia does not have armed forces capable of defending the country against a large-scale attack.
So let us suppose that Saudi Arabia’s currently testy relationship with the United States deteriorated to the point where the Saudis no longer felt they could rely on Washington’s protection. If the Saudis could no longer assume that the armed forces of the United States are their ultimate weapon against external threats, might they not wish to acquire a different ultimate weapon? With that in mind, could not a reasonable case be made in the Saudis’ minds for the development of an alternative security relationship, and perhaps a nuclear agreement, with another major power should relations with the United States deteriorate? A possible candidate for such a role would of course be China, a nuclear power that has a close relationship with Saudi Arabia’s ally Pakistan and a growing need for imported oil. Sufficiently remote from the Gulf not to pose a direct threat to Saudi Arabia, and no longer part of any international communist movement, China could theoretically be an attractive partner. This is not to say that Saudi Arabia is actually seeking such a relationship with any country other the United States, or that China would undertake such a mission, but to be unaware of any such outreach is not to exclude it from the realm of possibility.
THE STRATEGY GAP
The Saudi Arabian armed forces have never developed a coherent national security doctrine that could provide a serious basis for for a decision to acquire nuclear weapons. But to summarize the reasons why Saudi Arabia might pursue such a course: it is a rich but weak country with armed forces of suspect competence; outmanned by combat-hardened, truculent and potentially nuclear-armed neighbors; and no longer confident that it can count on its American protector.
Even before the Iraq War, Richard L. Russell of the National Defense University argued in a 2001 essay arguing the case for Saudi acquisition of nuclear capability that “It would be imprudent, to say the least, for Riyadh to make the cornerstone of [its] national-security posture out of an assumption that the United States would come to the kingdom’s defenseunder any and all circumstances.” It might be even more imprudent now.
“From Riyadh’s perspective,” continued Russell, “the acquisition of nuclear weapons and secure delivery systems would appear logical and even necessary.”
Those “secure delivery systems,” Russell argued, would not be aircraft, which are vulnerable to ground defenses, but “ballistic-missile delivery systems that would stand a near-invulnerable chance of penetrating enemy airspace” — namely, the CSS-2s. Military experts say it is theoretically possible that the missiles could be made operational, modernized, and retrofitted with nuclear warheads acquired from China, Pakistan or perhaps, within a few years, North Korea. Any attempt to do so, however, would present immense technical and political difficulties — so much so that Saudi Arabia might emerge less secure, rather than more.
Even aside from the fact that such a nuclear program would place Saudi Arabia in the category of global nuclear outlaw along with North Korea and, by then, probably Iran, the acquisition of warheads would encounter strenuous opposition from the United States and Israel. Having watched Washington’s reaction to Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998, the Saudis are well aware that U.S. law requires economic and military sanctions against nuclear proliferators. And whereas Pakistan and India had friends in Congress who were willing to help them escape the network of mandatory sanctions, Saudi Arabia does not. If an angry Congress cut off Saudi Arabia from future purchases of US military equipment and Israel threatened a pre-emptive strike, the Kingdom’s position would be precarious to the point of untenability.
Moreover, confrontation and defiance are not Saudi Arabia’s style; the Saudis’ weapons of choice are cash and diplomacy. It is difficult to imagine the princes of the House of Saud deliberately positioning themselves as global outliers and inviting reprisals from countries capable of inflicting serious political and economic damage on them. With hundreds of billions of dollars of private Saudi capital and government funds invested in the United States, the Saudis would be ill-advised to risk an asset freeze. To avoid such consequences, the Saudis could seek to acquire weapons secretly, as they did with the Chinese missiles. In the unlikely event that they could accomplish such a feat, the exercise could be self-defeating because nuclear weapons lose their deterrent value if their existence is unknown.
Either way, covert or overt, acquiring nuclear warheads and installing them on modernized, retrofitted CSS-2 missiles capable of delivering them would require Chinese cooperation, which is unlikely to be forthcoming. Once a problem proliferator and the probable source of technology and material for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, China now has a higher interest in maintaining the nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States that went into effect in 1998, making possible U.S. commercial sales to China’s civilian nuclear power program. Having joined the NPT system in 1992, China is obliged “not in any way to assist, encourage or induce any non-nuclear weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices.”
Under the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act of 1994, China would face revocation of the U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement it worked so hard to secure, as well as economic sanctions, if it were deemed to have “aided or abetted” the acquisition of nuclear weapons. With India as a strategic rival, the Chinese had some reason to help Pakistan acquire nuclear capability, and they continued to assist Pakistan’s program even after adhering to the NPT. No such consideration prevails in the Middle East. Moreover, in the years since the CSS-2 missile deal, China has become a major importer of oil and now presumably values stability in a region upon which it is becoming increasingly dependent.
Assuming that the Saudis would seek to acquire nuclear weapons despite all the potential negative consequences and that the Chinese would not cooperate, Riyadh would have to acquire a new fleet of nuclear-capable missiles for delivery in addition to the warheads themselves. This would greatly increase the cost, as well as the risk of detection, but it is theoretically possible. One source could be North Korea, which has been a prolific retailer of missiles and in the past might be would be willing to sell warheads or at least fissionable material. The September 2007 air raid by Israel on a Syrian installation to which North Korea was reportedly suspected of shipping nuclear materials raised questions about Pyongyang’s trustworthiness on this issue. In any case, doing nuclear weapons business with North Korea would put the Saudis so far outside the comfort zone of their relations with the United States, Europe, and Japan that it is difficult to imagine Riyadh taking such a step so long as the House of Saud reigns, regardless of the perceived threat.
A ROLE FOR PAKISTAN?
The other possible source would be Pakistan. Saudi Arabia has had a long and close relationship that survived Pakistan’s multiple shifts from civilian to military rule and back. There was a flurry of media speculation in 1999 when Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister, Prince Sultan, became the first prominent foreigner to visit Pakistan’s missile factory and its nuclear weapons facilities at Kahuta. Neither country has ever revealed full details of that visit, but Pakistan denied that it had anything to do with nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the Sultan’s visit alerted Washington to the possibility of a Saudi turn to Pakistan for missiles and perhaps even nuclear warheads. It was believed to be the first time any outsider had been permitted to visit the Pakistani sites.
By that time, Pakistan was openly in possession of nuclear warheads, having tested six the year before in response to tests by India, and was nearing production of a new generation of ballistic missiles with a range of 1,500 miles — a possible replacement for the CSS-2s in Saudi Arabia.
As conservative, Sunni Muslim nations with overlapping interests and complementary strengths, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had been considering formal security agreements since the 1950s. The appeal of such an arrangement was obvious: Pakistan had military knowhow, trained manpower, and experienced forces, but no money; the Saudis lacked military and industrial capability, but had plenty of cash. According to the United Nations’ global compilation of treaties, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have a friendship pact dating to that era but no formal mutual defense agreement — indeed, Saudi Arabia has no formal defense agreement with any country, other than the loose arrangements of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and would be unlikely to enter such an arrangement with Pakistan out of fear of being dragged into the Kashmir conflict. But the security relationship between the two countries has been close since the late 1970s.
After the tumultuous year of 1979 — the most stressful in modern Saudi history because of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, the Iranian revolution, and the armed takeover by radical dissidents of the Great Mosque in Mecca, followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — a small contingent of Pakistani troops was deployed to Saudi Arabia. One unit was stationed at Khamis Mushayt, in the far south, the other in Tabuk, near the Jordanian border, far enough from the capital not to pose any threat to the ruling family. The Saudis, of course, footed the bill. These troops remained until 1987, when oil prices hit historic lows and the Saudis could no longer afford them.
In cooperation with the CIA, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia worked closely throughout the 1980s to recruit, train, equip and pay for the guerrilla war of Islamic resistance against the Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan. (Among the many Saudi individuals who participated in that conflict was Osama bin Laden.) The Saudis congratulated Pakistan after its 1998 nuclear tests, and a few months later Crown Prince Abdullah, now the king, was received effusively on a visit to Lahore. In their joint statement about the visit, the two countries said that “Views were exchanged in an atmosphere of brotherhood and understanding in which prevailed mutual trust and compatibility of points of view which characterizes the Saudi-Pakistani relations.” The statement said the visit symbolized the “permanent bond between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.”
There is little doubt that at least until recently Pakistan was pressing ahead with the development of additional nuclear weapons and the missiles by which to deliver them. In May 2002, Pakistan tested a new liquid-fueled missile known as the Haft-V, apparently based on North Korean technology, with a range of about 800 miles. That is less than half the range of the CSS-2s, but still easily enough to reach critical targets in Iran, Iraq, and Israel from Saudi Arabia. Later that year, the Bush administration revealed its concern that Pakistan was paying North Korea for its missile technology not in cash but in assistance to Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The CIA reported in January 2003 that Pakistan has “continued to acquire nuclear-related equipment, some of it dual use, and materials from various sources — principally in Western Europe.”
But times have changed and Pakistan is less likely now to undertake such a risky venture as helping Saudi Arabia develop nuclear weapons. The A.Q. Khan network of off-the-books proliferation, which supplied Libya and other countries, has been exposed and dismantled. And Pakistan is in such a state of domestic political upheaval that it seems unlikely that anyone would be willing or able to authorize such a deal.
Some U.S. government officials believe that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have an understanding by which Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities would be made available on demand to Saudi Arabia if the Saudis found themselves in extremis, a guarantee purchased, in effect, by Saudi funding of Pakistan’s nuclear program. No known evidence supports this theory and some experts openly discount it. Among them is Gary Samore, a long-time student of Saudi Arabian security policy who is now the senior arms control and nonproliferation specialist at the National Security Council in the Clinton Administration.
“I don’t believe there’s a deal that the Saudis already paid and could take delivery on demand and if I were the Saudis I wouldn’t trust the Pakistani to deliver on such a deal,” Samore said. “There’s no doubt the Saudis have delivered a lot of money to Pakistan, and some went to support the nuclear weapons program, but I don’t believe any such quid pro quo exists. What would be more likely would be that Pakistan would [again] station troops on Saudi soil, and those could include nuclear-armed forces.”
These could be attack aircraft carrying bombs, missile squadrons deploying nuclear-tipped warheads, or ground troops, such as Pakistan previously sent to Saudi Arabia, now equipped with tactical — as opposed to strategic — nuclear weapons. But the purpose of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is to deter India. Against which potential foe of Saudi Arabia would Pakistan put its own interests at risk by deploying nuclear weapons in the Arabian Peninsula? The Pakistanis know as well as anyone that the principal threats to the security and stability of Saudi Arabia come from the turmoil among its neighbors, and against those threats nuclear weapons have no value. They might actually stir up more trouble than they would alleviate.
In summary, there are some logical reasons why some senior Saudi princes might wish to pursue nuclear weapons in the event that Iran is known to have acquired them. Given the impenetrability of the Saudi decision-making process, it is impossible to know if such discussions have taken place in Riyadh. But on balance, the strategic, political and technological problems standing the way of such a program make it unlikely if not impossible that Saudi Arabia would go down that road, no matter what happens across the Gulf.
There will be an important test of Saudi intentions once formal negotiations begin on a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. Such an agreement, known as a “123 Agreement,” is a prerequisite to any transfer of American nuclear material or technology, and must be ratified by the Senate. The United States can be expected to insist that the Saudis accept the so-called “Abu Dhabi model,” referring to the existing “123 Agreement” with the United Arab Emirates. The UAE agreed to forgo both ends of the nuclear fuel cycle – it will neither enrich its own fuel or retain and reprocess spent fuel after it is withdrawn from reactors. If the Saudis refuse to accept that model, suspicions about their true intentions will be reinforced.
About Thomas W. Lippman
Thomas W. Lippman is a senior adjunct scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. His career in journalism at the Washington Post included four years as the Washington Post’s Middle East bureau chief, three years as the Post’s oil and energy reporter and a decade as the newspaper’s national security and diplomatic correspondent, he traveled extensively to Saudi Arabia. He is the author of “Arabian Knight: Colonel Bill Eddy USMC and the Rise of American Power in the Middle East,” “Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia,” ” Madeleine Albright and the New American Diplomacy,” ” Understanding Islam, and Egypt After Nasser”. A writer and journalist specializing in U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern affairs, he lives in Washington, DC.
- Nuclear Weapons and Saudi Strategy – Thomas Lippman – Middle East Institute Policy Brief – Jan 2, 2008
- SUSRIS Special Section – Civilian Nuclear Trade Agreement
- Bilateral Civilian Nuclear Talks Set to Open – SUSRIS – Jul 29, 2011
- A Saudi National Security Doctrine for the Next Decade – SUSRIS – Jul 11, 2011
- President Bush in Saudi Arabia – National Security Advisor Hadley Briefing – SUSRIS – May 17, 2008
- Strengthening Diplomatic Ties With Saudi Arabia – White House Fact Sheet – May 16, 2008 – SUSRIS
- United States Supports Saudi Arabian Civil Nuclear Program – SUSRIS – May 16, 2008
- U.S.-Saudi Arabia Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Energy Cooperation – SUSRIS – May 16, 2008
- President Bush in Saudi Arabia – National Security Advisor Hadley Briefing – SUSRIS – May 17, 2008
- The Challenge of Change in Saudi Arabia: A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS – March 2, 2011
- A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS – Sep 10, 2010
- Business Forum Perspectives – Lippman – SUSRIS Exclusive Interview – Apr 28, 2010
- Middle East Peace and the U.S.-Saudi Relationship: A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS Exclusive Interview – March 2, 2009
- Exclusive – Leadership Transitions: A Conversation With Thomas Lippman – January 9, 2009
- Exclusive – Arabian Knight: Colonel Bill Eddy USMC and the Rise of American Power in the Middle East – A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – Sep 15, 2008
- Exclusive – The Proud Heritage of Aramco: A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS Interview – May 30, 2008
- “Good Morning, Mr. President” Thomas Lippman’s Briefing for POTUS – SUSRIS IOI – January 11, 2008
- Exclusive – Political and Economic Developments in Saudi-US Relations – A Conversation With Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS Interview – Sep 29, 2007
- Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil – Wallace Stegner – Foreword by Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS IOI – Sep 18, 2007
- Exclusive – Determined to Remain Friends – A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – Exclusive – SUSRIS Interview – Aug 7, 2007
- A New Regional Leadership – Thomas W. Lippman – SUSRIS IOI – May 10, 2007
- Exclusive – Region in Crisis: Fine Lines and Consequences – A Conversation with Thomas W. Lippman – SUSRIS Interview – Aug 2, 2006
- Exclusive – Crawford Summit Perspective: A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS Interview – May 9, 2005
- Exclusive – Insight on the Kingdom from the Author of Inside the Mirage — A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – Part One – SUSRIS Interview – March 30, 2005
- Exclusive – Insight on the Kingdom from the Author of Inside the Mirage — A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – Part Two – SUSRIS Interview – Apr 18, 2005
- Exclusive – U.S.-Saudi Relations: A Glass Half Empty, Or Half Full? – An Interview With Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS Interview – Aug 28, 2004
- Thomas Lippman – “Inside The Mirage” – US-Saudi Relations — SAIS Panel – SUSRIS IOI – Dec 16, 2003