The Saudi bomb

Made in Pakistan, Supported by China, but still Saudi Arabia’s nuclear weapon

This week, a major Western media house discovered that the Saudi Arabia has already paid Pakistan for the bomb and can have it home-delivered pretty quickly. This is perhaps the first time that news of the Saudi-Pakistan nuclear arrangement is getting media coverage. This topic was something that Western mediapersons and analysts would determinedly avoid discussing in public. Even the most committed advocates of the nuclear non-proliferation regime still do not write or talk about the relationship, which makes their advocacy and intent a lot less credible than it otherwise might have been.

Regular readers of this blog will recall analysis suggesting that Pakistan’s rapid stockpiling of fissile material is linked to Saudi Arabia’s needs in correlation with Iran’s nuclear advancements. China’s grandfatherly nuclear largesse makes Beijing an accomplice in this nuclear weapons manufacturing and transfer business. This is plain and simple nuclear proliferation, no matter if the self-appointed guardians of that term choose to ignore it.

Given this background, the fact that BBC’s Newsnight is now revealing that the Pakistanis might transfer the bomb to Saudi Arabia on demand suggests that the Saudi Arabian government wants it to be revealed. This is understandable: with chances of a Iran’s rapprochement with the West increasing this year, the likelihood that the world will eventually accept a nuclear Iran is also rising. Letting it be known that Saudi Arabia also has nuclear capacity—albeit in an outsourced model—serves to reinforce Riyadh’s prestige, proto-deterrence and adds pressure on its Western allies to not cut deals with the Iranians. It also helps prepare the ground for an eventual coming out of the nuclear closet.

What Western analysts of nuclear proliferation have to answer for is when exactly did the Saudi-Pakistan-China nuclear arrangement start? If it predates Tehran’s own decision to develop nuclear weapons capacity, then shouldn’t part of the responsibility for Iran’s move accrue to Riyadh, Islamabad and Beijing? Recriminations of the intellectual kind are futile in geopolitics, but to the extent that the United States recognises Iran’s security challenges, it might be able to negotiate for better outcomes with Iran, for the international community.

The emerging problem in the Middle East is one of shaping a stable nuclear deterrence relationship primarily involving Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the United States, Pakistan and China as actors in a supporting role. Getting facts out into the open is the good way to begin addressing it.

One thought on “The Saudi bomb”

  1. Nitin, I respectfully disagree with your assessment.

    First, you say that “This topic was something that Western mediapersons and analysts would determinedly avoid discussing in public” — but this has never been the case. The Guardian, The Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others have all reported extensively on the Saudi-Pakistan nuclear relationship.

    See, for instance, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/sep/18/nuclear.saudiarabia. Analysts have also talked about this e.g. http://www.the-american-interest.com/article-bd.cfm?piece=1264

    Second, you argue that “with chances of a Iran’s rapprochement with the West increasing this year, the likelihood that the world will eventually accept a nuclear Iran is also rising”. I’d argue it’s precisely the other way round – a narrow nuclear deal, one which makes it far harder for Iran to produce nuclear weapons than today, is looking likelier. A ‘grand bargain’ or rapprochement i.e. agreement on a range of issues, like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq etc is looking quite improbable. If diplomacy were merely to leave Iran with a bob or on the threshold, there would be no point in relaxing sanctions.

    Simply put, a deal will leave Iran *further* from the bomb. Saudi may be signalling its anxiety at the diplomacy through these nuclear hints, but this should be seen as an effort to shape that diplomacy (much as Israel does through threats of force). If the West does cut a nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia will have to swallow it.

    Third, you arguer that “If it predates Tehran’s own decision to develop nuclear weapons capacity, then shouldn’t part of the responsibility for Iran’s move accrue to Riyadh, Islamabad and Beijing?” — On the one hand, recall that the US has never been wild about Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear-relevant technology. The furore over the Saudi acquisition of Chinese missiles in the late 1980s is relevant: the US subsequently forced Saudi to sign the NPT, blocked $450m of military sales, and Congress blocked AWACS sales.

    See http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Dg5nEk7YNscC&pg=PA114&lpg=PA114&dq=us+saudi+awacs+css-2&source=bl&ots=iwXt_fEJqe&sig=f9XRp9wgn7hD2U3_hCAxYeFPLco&hl=en&sa=X&ei=nWh7Uo79KYXxhQeKmYG4Cg&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=us%20saudi%20awacs%20css-2&f=false for more information.

    In addition, it’s worth bearing in mind that there is very little evidence that Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme was ever driven by Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it continued throughout the period of Iran-Saudi detente in the early 1990s. Iraq was also more prominent in Iranian threat perceptions.

    None of which is to underplay the dangers of Saudi-Pakistan nuclear cooperation, of course.

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