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.

Living with a nuclear Iran

Dealing with a nuclear Iran is better than suffering an international war to stop it.

Led by the United States, much of the international community has tightened economic sanctions on Iran in an attempt to prevent it from building nuclear weapons. India and China are among the few countries that have stayed out of this initiative and have been criticised for it. In a piece in the Wall Street Journal that comprehensively captures the argument against New Delhi’s current policy of not participating in the sanctions regime, Sadanand Dhume argues:

An India that uses its oil purchases and diplomatic clout to create breathing room for Iran risks scuppering the notion New Delhi has benefited from for more than a decade: that India’s rise is beneficial to the West. By contrast, should India throw its weight behind a powerful anti-Iran coalition, it stands to gain by halting the further nuclearization of its neighborhood, blunting the spread of radical Islam and bolstering its credentials as a force for stability. [WSJ]

Mr Dhume makes an important point when he says that “India’s quest for security and prosperity is most effectively pursued in a predictable and stable US-led international order.” Yet there is room—and indeed, a need—for discrimination within agreement over this worldview. In the case of Iran Washington’s policy position is dogmatic to the point of rejecting without any consideration the benefits—to the United States and to the US-led order—of a grand rapprochement with Iran. In a recent article on FP, Neil Padukone, a new fellow for geopolitics at Takshashila, details the scale and the scope of this geopolitical opportunity. I have argued that New Delhi well-placed to lubricate this process.

We have to criticise New Delhi, but for a different reason. It did not even attempt to avoid being crunched by Washington on one side and its own interests with Iran on the other. The situation in Afghanistan can change dramatically if Iran and the United States could cooperate. Where we needed imaginative and deft diplomacy, we saw resignation and default. Opportunities to improve ties with Washington on issues unrelated to Iran—from the fighter plane purchase, to UN Security Council positions over Libya and Syria—were gratuitously squandered.

On the nuclear issue, if the question were asked at a time when Iran was far away from building a bomb, the answer to whether an Iranian bomb is in India’s interests would have been a “No.” But now, at a time when the only way to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon is a war, the answer is different. In fact, the question for governments around the world now is whether an Iranian bomb is worse than an international war to prevent it.

A military conflict against Iran is not in India’s interests. Not only will it further destabilise a region that is already in deep crisis, it will do so in a form where India will be directly affected. Fuel supplies from Iran and supply routes from the Persian Gulf will come under threat and could precipitate a domestic economic crisis with unpredictable consequences. Also, doesn’t a war with Iran once again provide the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, with the encouragement of the Saudis, to once again become a frontline ally in an American war? Washington’s predisposition to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s shenanigans in the context of its own geopolitical projects was and will be expensive to India.

Those who have long enough memories will recall that General Zia-ul-Haq was in Washington’s doghouse until the United States had to intervene in Afghanistan. Those who have shorter memories will recall General Musharraf being in a similar place and his dictatorship getting a ticket to respectability when the United States had to do it again. The Pakistani military establishment used these periods to first develop and expand its strategic assets—nuclear weapons and jihadi groups. Another reprieve will be no different.

It takes a lot to believe sanctions can prevent a determined, modern state like Iran from building a bomb it wants to. The costs of these ineffective sanctions are subjective—and unless there’s a short-term way to ensure the long-term security of 11 percent of India’s energy imports—for New Delhi they are not worth incurring.

Where does this leave us? Well, with the reality of having to deal with a nuclear Iran, and consequently perhaps with an overtly nuclear Saudi Arabia too. This need not necessarily make the region more unstable, even considering a triangular dynamic that includes Israel. Let’s not forget Western nuclear deterrence theory has always lagged deterrence in practice—be it during the Cold War or in the case of the subcontinent.

This does not mean that the Iranian regime is all Persian fragrance towards India. It’s not. But you can’t survive as a regime or as a state—even a revolutionary one—without realism. There’s a reason why Mullah Omar had to flee on a motorcycle while the leaders of Viet Nam are now Washington’s strategic allies. Regimes devoid of realism write their own obituaries. The survival of the Iranian theocratic-democracy is evidence of there being an underpinning of realism. Iran’s realists, however, are eclipsed by fundamentalists like Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who feed on hostility with the United States. To the extent that the hostility can be ratcheted down, the realists in the regime will be strengthened. Even otherwise, the Iranian regime, despite its foundations on the Shia narrative, is unlikely to desire civilisational suicide. [Update: How states act after they acquire nuclear weapons – on The Monkey Cage, linkthanks @chennaikaran]

New Delhi’s position might differ from that of Washington and Tel Aviv. But just as their positions are based on their perceptions of self-interest, so is ours. While there is no need to be apologetic about its positions over Iran, New Delhi must not lose other opportunities to strengthen its relationship with the United States and Israel.

David Petraeus is in da house

And is making the Pakistani military establishment squirm

Abdul Qadeer Khan wrote a 11-page confession in 2004. He also wrote and spirited out of Pakistan copies of another letter in 2003 to buy him protection from the Pakistani military-jihadi complex.

Simon Henderson, a former British journalist, acquired a copy of the letter in 2007, by his own admission. He wrote about its contents in the London Times in September 2009. Then almost half-a-year later, in March 2010, the Washington Post published an article, covering similar ground, pitched as if it were revealing Iran’s attempts to purchase “atomic bombs” from Pakistan in the late-1980s.

Today, the Washington Post has another report, based on the same source material (which it obtained in March 2010, if not earlier), alleging two top Pakistani generals, General Jehangir Karamat and Lt Gen Zulfiqar Khan, received $3 million and three diamond and ruby sets from the North Korean regime in return for nuclear technology. It also suggests that the money which might have gone into ‘secret funds’, which might have been used to fund militants fighting in Kashmir.

Other than fingering Generals Karamat and Khan, today’s report doesn’t tell us anything substantially new—Mr Henderson’s 2009 report mentions $3 million being paid to Pakistani generals.

So why is the Washington Post publishing reports based on information it is likely to have received more than a year ago, if not even earlier? If news is something to be broken as soon as it is reliably verified, why take six months to do it? And why do it again 15 months later?

One reason to explain the Post’s curious behaviour is that its editors had been persuaded not to publish certain details by the US government. Going by this explanation, the US government must have withdrawn parts of that request in March 2010 and now.

Earlier this week, the New York Times, citing newly classified information, alleged that the ISI ordered the killing of Syed Saleem Shehzad. No, not ‘rogue elements’ or other fig leaves, but senior officials of the ISI were held responsible.

And today, the Washington Post released a letter naming Pakistan’s army chief and another senior general, both of who were in service when the North Korean deal took place.

The United States is threatening to push the Pakistani military establishment into the doghouse. It looks like General Petraeus (“Mr” Petraeus in Rawalpindi), now in charge of the CIA, is signaling how he intends to play the game.


(…in the Aman ki Asha newspapers)

Chidanand Rajghatta’s report in the Times of India on the Pakistan’s fast growing nuclear arsenal quotes me:

Some analysts scoffed at reports of expanding Pakistani nuclear arsenal, which has been making the rounds since Lavoie’s assertion, suggesting it was aimed at extracting a nuclear deal for Pakistan similar to the one India has arrived at with the U.S and the international nuclear club.

“If Pakistan is stockpiling nukes, it’s the west that needs to be scared. India cannot be scared more than it has been since 1985 (when Pakistan first weaponized),” said Nitin Pai, who edits Pragati, the Indian National Interest Review, and is a Fellow at the Takshashila Institution. “We stopped counting after Pakistan’s first one.” Most Indian analysts believe Washington has generally winked at Pakistan’s egregious nuclear build-up because of other strategic concerns.

The United States, which according to these critics indirectly funds and underwrites Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program (because the country generates no revenues beyond its bare survival) continues to be blasé in public about Islamabad’s growing arsenal, even though it is coming at the expense of a proposed international treaty to stop production of fissile material. Pakistan has blocked progress on the so-called Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty in Geneva and remains the lone hold-out, despite living on American hand-outs, as it accelerates expansion of its arsenal. [TOI]

Here is a previous post that explains why Pakistan is running an arms race, but a Middle Eastern one.

On a different note, Rizwan Asghar cites my post on Robert Blackwill’s proposal to partition Afghanistan, in Pakistan’s The News.

Afghan literature has always expressed love for all communities – i.e., Pakhtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks alike. If Iraq, with equally distinct and strong linguistic and sectarian divisions, could not be divided, Afghanistan is least expected to go that way. Indian journalist Nitin Pai has recently said that “despite ethnic heterogeneity, foreign invasions, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the contemporary weakness of the Afghan state, the people of Afghanistan have a strong sense of nationhood. So, while partitioning the country might have its attractions for geopolitical strategists, it is unlikely that the Afghan people will countenance such a project.” [The News]

Up Persian creek without a strategy

India must get its act together on Iran…quickly

The apparent lack of policy co-ordination within the Indian government over Iran is really worrying.

We are referring to the RBI’s decisions in recent days closing the Asian Clearing Union (ACU) mechanism to imports—beginning with oil and extending to other goods and services—from Iran. The move not only caught the industry by surprise. And it looks like it caught the relevant government ministries by surprise as well. Given that Iran is India’s second largest supplier of crude oil accounting for around 13 percent ($12 billion) of oil imports and the risk of a short-term supply shock sending oil prices higher, the lack of policy coordination amounts to dereliction of duty.

The lack of coordination reflects a deeper malaise—the UPA government’s inability to evolve a coherent policy on Iran, with the result that New Delhi is forever in reactive mode. [See: Will the Ayatollah step behind the line?] The overall failure of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his government to communicate with the public—witness how they botched up the India-US nuclear deal—means that no political leader explains why the government is doing whatever it is doing, and why difficult decisions have to be made. The latter would still be acceptable if the government executed in a competent fashion—like in the case of the nuclear deal—but intolerable where execution is poor.

In this case, there is no evidence that the relevant cabinet committees ever discussed the implications of RBI’s move and took the necessary measures to manage the fallout. The RBI’s independence doesn’t preclude coordination in matters like this. A competent government would have reassured the markets and the public that although RBI’s measures against imports from Iran would put 13% of India’s supply of crude at risk, it has alternative plans to protect the Indian economy. Instead we were left working out the implications of terse press releases issued by the central bank.

What might those alternative plans be? These could involve arrangements to import Iranian oil through other currencies (or the Indian rupee), assurances from other suppliers (read Saudi Arabia) that they will make up the shortfall or both. Given Saudi interests in keeping the lid on Iran’s nuclear programme, New Delhi could have extracted the latter as the price of tightening the financial screws on Iran. Indeed, not extracting such a price is a good opportunity squandered.

India must get its act together on Iran. First, it is in India’s interests to ensure that Iranian oil and gas continue to provide the economy with the supply diversity that an oil-importing country needs. If this objective is inconsistent with playing responsible global citizen then so be it.

Second, given that Iran shares an interest in preventing Afghanistan from falling under the sway of a Saudi-Pakistani-Taliban nexus, India needs to continue to engage Iran.

Third, while a nuclear-armed Iran may or may not be entirely in India’s interests, it is far better to manage the consequences thereof than to countenance the use of military force in a futile attempt to stop it.

Finally, while international sanctions are unlikely to prevent a determined Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, it is geopolitically costly to stay out of the Western consensus. Unless sanctions prohibit India from purchasing Iranian oil and gas, it is better for India to be part of the sanctions regime.

Reconciling these objectives is not easy, but not impossible either. The big prize in foreign policy, however, is for India to assiduously work to bridge the divide between the United States and Iran. This—more than securing a permanent seat at the UN Security Council—is a project that is worthy of a rising global power. This task of international statesmanship requires a real leadership at South Block and the PMO. Till that time we can have day-to-day issue management, not strategy.

The new year begins with a question mark on oil imports from Iran. The larger question mark though is whether the UPA government will now realise that it finds itself in a jam over Iran because it has no ideas of its own.

China’s nuclear brazenness

Power is when you can break the rules with impunity

Why is China literally giving away two nuclear reactors to Pakistan now?

As this blog has long argued the new reactors do not matter much to India from a security perspective. K Subrahmanyam supported this contention in a recent op-ed in the Indian Express.

If, as China claims, the reactors are safeguarded and cannot be used to produce material for nuclear weapons, then the only risks are those relating to Pakistan’s domestic stability and its nuclear facilities. These risks, we have on the authority of the US president and the Indian prime minister, are currently adequately managed. If, on the other hand, China’s claims are false—and both this blog and K Subrahmanyam are inclined towards this—then the new reactors will escalate the nuclear arms race between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Beyond the security calculus, there is a simple political reason why China is brazenly violating the commitments it made when it joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2004. It is playing a grand geopolitical game of tit-for-tat with the United States. It saw the US-India nuclear deal as a move to check its own power. It has responded by giving reactors away (literally)to Pakistan. Indeed, it could have done so by going through the due process of the NSG, as the United States did in India’s case. But tit-for-tat becomes all the more effective when you show that you can break the NSG norms and there’s nothing anyone can do about it—the Obama administration can just lump it. The sanctimonious Europeans, New Zealanders and others won’t even open their mouths (via INI Polaris) this time.

More than equating Pakistan to India, China is signaling that it is the United States’ equal. Once it is down that path, it can hardly back off. Can it?

Those masterly Persians

Lula and Erdogan have cleared Tehran’s clouds

In approximately one year two men will have red faces. That’s when the world will know that Brazil’s president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were suckered by the leaders of Iran.

It took Iran around 8 months to double its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU), half of which it has now agreed to swap for 20% enriched uranium under a deal brokered by the Brazilian and Turkish leaders. That still leaves it with 1200 kg of LEU, an unrestrained capacity to continue working its centrifuges and, possibly, clandestine facilities where it can produce weapons-grade uranium. In other words, Iran can get as close to building a nuclear bomb as it wishes to. Further, to the extent that that deal takes the international pressure off Iran it gives Tehran the time it needs to get closer to its self-defined finish line.

There’s more.

For now, Brazil and Turkey have avoided getting into a difficult position having to vote against Iran at the UN Security Council where they are currently non-permanent members. Since it was the Obama administration once floated the proposal for such a swap, the United States will find it hard to oppose it now, despite the facts having changed substantially since last October when it first mooted the idea. China will heave a sigh of relief too, since it too will not need to support tougher sanctions against Tehran. Everyone—other than the United States—wins. For now.

As we know from the North Korean story, what Iran needs most is time and diplomatic space. That, thanks now to Messrs Lula and Erdogan, it has acquired.

After that, it will be fait accompli.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear arsenal-on-demand

Just say the word

That Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have a secret nuclear deal is not exactly a secret. But the Guardian‘s Julian Borger has some details:

According to western intelligence sources (the meeting was under Chatham House rules so I am not allowed to be more specific) the Saudi monarchy paid for up to 60% of the Pakistani nuclear programme, and in return has the option to buy a small nuclear arsenal (‘five to six warheads) off the shelf if things got tough in the neighbourhood. [Guardian Blogs]

That’s still very fuzzy, but better than what was previously known to the public. In any case, the Pakistanis are unlikely to refuse if Saudi Arabia were to increase the size of the order.

While on the topic, do see Sean O’Connor’s very good open source intelligence analysis of Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile force.

Robert Wrong

Why the discourse over nuclear arms controls needs to start with objectivity

Over at the New York Times Opinionator, Robert Wright gives you a timesaving preview of his deep thoughts before Armageddon. The NPT review conference next month will amount to nothing because, essentially, because “change is impossible when lots of those 189 nations are annoyed with the nations that are pushing for change.”

So far, so good. But Mr Wright gets the whole plot wrong as to why many nations are annoyed with the nations pushing for the change. “(Some) nuclear have-nots unhappy with the United States,” he writes, because “we seem to be fine with India, Pakistan and Israel having nukes, whereas we go ballistic (figuratively) over the possession of nukes by North Korea.”

It doesn’t cross Mr Wright’s mind that the annoyance could be due the fact that there is no real sign that “pledge that the big five would gradually get rid of all their nukes” will ever be redeemed. This is typical of what some Indian commentators term “non-proliferation ayatollahs” (why insult ayatollahs?). So steeped is their sense of entitlement to nuclear weapons, so complete is their rewriting of nuclear history, that the NPT is presented merely as an instrument to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of everyone but the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France. The reality that it represents a bargain—disarmament (by the five countries that had tested nuclear weapons before 1969) for non-development of nuclear weapons (by the rest)—is distorted into a discourse over who can ‘legitimately’ have nuclear weapons.

Mr Wright goes on. North Korea, he writes “having dropped out of the treaty around the time it got a nuke, has the same status in international law as India, Pakistan and Israel.” This is not only smugness and ignorance. It is a failure to apply elementary logic. There is a huge difference in international law between a countries that have willfully violated a treaty it has signed—North Korea and Iran—and a country that have not signed the treaty at all. Anthropomorphic analogies are best avoided while discussing international relations, but this one makes sense: It is absurd to accuse an unmarried person of adultery.

Mr Wright might argue that his point was that he meant that North Korea was a sovereign state, just like India, Pakistan and Israel. In which case, he should know, that so is the United States. If his point is that the United States shouldn’t discriminate between allies and non-allies when it comes to accepting their ownership of nuclear weapons, then he should answer just why the United States should accept its own nuclear status.

If all this stinks of hypocrisy, it is because that’s what it is. Realists will have no problems with that—in the amoral world of international relations, discriminatory behaviour in the pursuit of self-interest is par for the course. But in that tragically amusing world of US politics, ‘liberals’ like Mr Wright will argue that it is only the conservatives that do the hypocrisy thing. That is hypocrisy.

NB: The NPT is bunk. If those genuinely concerned about nuclear disarmament don’t think different, like in this modest proposal, just be ready for more blows like the one China is set to deliver.

Nuclear candour with Chinese characteristics

China signals that its nuclear support to Pakistan is about weapons

Mark Hibbs has news on the two new nuclear reactors that China is selling to Pakistan in blatant violation of its non-proliferation commitments:

Chinese officials said last month that export of the reactors to Pakistan would be justified in consideration of political developments in South Asia, including the entry into force of the U.S.–India deal and the NSG exemption for India. Western diplomats said China would not strongly favor an NSG exemption for Pakistan matching India’s because that would not additionally benefit Chinese industry and because Pakistan, compared to India, is a limited nuclear power market with far less infrastructure and far fewer financial resources.

China in 2004 did not claim that more power reactors after Chashma-2 would be “grandfathered” by the prior Sino–Pakistan nuclear accord, and China has argued instead that there are compelling political reasons concerning the stability of South Asia to justify the exports. China will therefore not justify the transactions on the basis of any confidential commercial agreements between China and Pakistan, NSG state representatives said. [CEIP]

As brazen has China’s attitude towards nuclear proliferation continues to be, it is nevertheless good to see Beijing openly reveal why it is abetting Pakistan’s fissile material factory. It’s not about nuclear energy. It’s about nuclear weapons. For if you have “compelling political reasons concerning the stability of South Asia” helping Pakistan build more electricity generation plants is not what you would do.

The incredulous attempt to claim that its new reactor sales are actually part of a deal it signed with Pakistan before accepting NSG obligations appears to have been discarded. China’s brazenness is supposedly due to the fact that the United States needs its support at the United Nations Security Council to place sanctions against Iran.

Mr Hibbs writes that if the United States failed to object to China’s flouting of its obligations it would mean “Obama was prepared to brush off an important nuclear nonproliferation norm on grounds of political expediency.”

In other words, Beijing is counting on President Obama being okay with the certainty of allowing an unstable, adventurous, military-ruled Pakistan to build more nuclear weapons as the price of the possibility of preventing Iran from building one.