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.

My op-ed in WSJ Asia – Cut Pakistan Loose

Bailing it out will only impede its transformation into a normal state.

You have read about what the military-jihadi complex is and why it is a problem. In today’s Wall Street Journal I argue that the United States, China and Saudi Arabia should discontinue aid and instead, allow Pakistanis to decide the future of their state.

Read the whole thing on WSJ. Here’s an excerpt:

The international community should therefore rely on domestic processes to dismantle the military-jihadi complex. So far, the Pakistani elite who lead the putative state have had little incentive to put up an existential struggle against the complex: They know that the latter enjoys the West’s tacit support and they believe that foreign sponsors will avert the fiscal crises caused by the army eating up resources. The elite is likely to fight harder if they know that there is no bailout package in the offing.

They can certainly fight, if they want to. Over the last decade, they first backed Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator; then Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry in his legal battle against the dictator; then Mr. Zardari and so on. Clearly, the elite are pragmatic; they will support whichever side can win. If the military-jihadi complex is seen to be losing, they will pile up against it.

The time is right for Islamabad’s three chief bankrollers, the U.S., China and Saudi Arabia, to cut it loose. So far the onus of preventing really bad outcomes in Pakistan—the most extreme of which is represented as a jihadi takeover of the nuclear-armed state—has fallen on them.

But the current moment provides an opportunity for them to get out of the way of Pakistan’s political transformation. Recent incidents, from the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad to the raid on a Pakistani naval base, should begin to turn public opinion against the army. The civilian leaders of the state have the opportunity to force reform. They can reduce defense expenditure, place the military under civilian control and wind down support for militants. However, if external aid and political support shores up the credibility of the military establishment, this process will stop and the old dynamic will resume.

Needless to say, turning off aid flows to Pakistan comes with risks. The army will try to play the U.S., China and Saudi Arabia against each other. In the past month, Pakistan has made a show of cozying up to China for military support. Yet China’s response has been lukewarm, indicating that Beijing or Riyadh wouldn’t want to become the sole guardians of a delinquent ward. Their own self-interest, along with persuasion from Washington, might bring about cooperation.

And what if tough love actually brings about the nightmare, putting a jihadi regime in control of nuclear weapons? Yes, the risks of nuclear proliferation, international terrorism and war with India are likely to increase. Even so, the overall situation would at least inject clarity in the minds of statesmen to allow them to work together and move to contain or dismantle the source of the threats.

But this worst-case outcome is unlikely simply because it is not in the interests of the Pakistani elite. It is certainly not in the interests of the army, which is primarily interested in its own survival. When threatened with the risk of punishment by the Bush administration in 2001, Mr. Musharraf promptly changed course.

Once aid is cut off, ground realities will create more chances for Pakistan’s own state to force the army to change course. All the more reason then for the world to allow Pakistanis to decide what they want to do about their state.

Reconstructing Afghanistan’s natural balance

Why India must try to bring the United States, Iran and Russia together over Afghanistan

Imagine Afghanistan without extra-regional powers like the United States, NATO and others. Its stability would depend on the stability of the balance of power between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan and India. The external actors would broadly fall into two camps, based on the degree of convergence of their interests: China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the red corner, and India, Iran and Russia in the blue. This was roughly the situation obtaining in Afghanistan in the second-half of the 1990s towards the end of which the red corner seized a dominant upper hand through the military success of Mullah Omar’s Taliban regime. After 9/11, the US and NATO stepped in and disrupted the natural geopolitical dynamics of the region.

Once external powers withdraw Afghanistan the natural geopolitics will again kick into action: with the China-Saudi-Pakistan triad seeking dominance over the landlocked country against the interests of India, Iran and Russia. The United States has the power to set the future trajectory by choosing sides. The tragedy of the last decade is the sheer inability or unwillingness (complicity or incompetence?) of the United States to appreciate the intrinsic geopolitics of the region. It would have done much better for itself and for Afghanistan if it had recognised how the fundamental interests of the region’s powers were stacked up, and aligned itself accordingly.

The single most important reason for this, perhaps, was the dysfunctional relationship between Iran. There still is no love lost between Washington and Tehran. Worse, even as China consolidates its alliance with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the United States seeks to split India and Iran. For its part, India has shown no appetite for bringing about a rapprochement between the United States and Tehran.

This must change, and 2011 has opened a window for India, Iran and the United States to attempt to increase co-operation over Afghanistan. Writing in the Washington Post, a well-connected Saudi commentator has declared a US-Saudi split. The Pakistani establishment is checking how much support it will receive from China before deciding how much to part ways with the United States. Before the killing of Osama bin Laden upset the scoreboard, General Kayani and Prime Minister Gilani had asked Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, to cut his links with the United States. In the current circumstances China doesn’t have to do anything bold: it just needs to wait.

In contrast, even after Abbottabad, the United States remains wedded to a failed strategy of pretending that the Pakistani military establishment is its ally. This only strengthens the position of the China-Saudi-Pakistan triad, and weakens its own. New Delhi is unlikely to be persuaded that it enjoys a genuinely strategic relationship with the United States as long as the latter continues to scaffold Pakistan. Tehran has many reasons to be opposed to the United States. A good part of that is ideological. What gets less attention is the fact that the realists in Tehran have reason to be wary of the United States because they see Washington as the protector of both Israel and, more importantly, the Sunni bloc consisting of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. There are some differences between New Delhi and Tehran, but nothing that can’t be resolved if Washington were to change course. Russia enjoys good relations with both Iran and India, and is likely to prefer such a re-arrangement of relations.

If realism prevails in Washington, New Delhi and Tehran, their diplomats will be galvanised into working out how the three could co-operate, albeit in a limited context, over Afghanistan. It may be that nearly three decades of estrangement has left the tribal world of Washington policymaking with few advocates of making up with Iran. That’s why India has a role—it must muster up the imagination and diplomatic chutzpah to attempt this project.

It is frustrating to see resigned minds give up before even trying.

Related Links: Lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement (from this blog’s archives) and Neil Padukone’s issue brief at CLAWS.

Regarding Egypt’s political transformation

Managing risks is better than trying to predict the future

So what should the Indian government do about the ongoing political transformation in Egypt?

First, ensure that Indian citizens and their interests are protected during and after the crisis. New Delhi has done well on this account, with the Indian embassy in Cairo putting out a statement on the safety of the Indian community there, establishing hotlines and organising special flights to evacuate citizens from Egypt.

Second, it is both premature and arrogant to presume that certain outcomes of the political transformation are desirable merely on account that they are either democratic or that they will prevent destabilising the entire region. It is too early to tell how the transformation will proceed, less to determine whether tomorrow’s political dispensation will be pro- or anti-India. A democratic Egypt—whether or not in the hands of moderate or extremist Islamists—can still pursue anti-India policies, just as an authoritarian regime can. We might prefer a secular, democratic Egyptian republic, but that’s really projecting our own values and biases on them.

New Delhi would do well to avoid taking sides in this conflict—leaving it to the likes of the United States and Europe to pay up for dishes they ordered. At the same time, the Indian government must signal that it will do business with whoever remains or comes to power.

Third, India must prepare to deal with the consequences of the Egyptian transformation, both in Egypt and in the wider Middle East. Much of this is contingency planning: how would India be affected if the reigning despots are replaced by politically elected governments, which might be Islamist? Would we see a shift in the Middle Eastern balance of power, weakening Saudi Arabia and strengthening Turkey? Should anti-American regimes come to power, will they attempt to rely on China to sustain their confrontation with the United States? What will the United States demand of India? These are just some of the questions that need deeper thinking and something that the Ministry of External Affairs’ policy planning department should be working on.

Update: Chimaya Gharekhan in The Hindu & C Raja Mohan in the Indian Express on the subject. (linkthanks Pragmatic_D)


(…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.

Pakistan’s ‘second’ nuclear arsenal

My talk at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi

Earlier this month, I presented my analysis of Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal at CLAWS. A summary of the talk and discussion is up at their website. Excerpt:

Pakistan is worried for its nuclear safety and the US view on its nuclear programme. The second nuclear arsenal would be outside the ambit of its regular arsenal and could be brought into play if any attempt is made to take out its regular arsenal by any agency distrustful of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads.

Possible existence of a second nuclear arsenal increases the risk for the US and also imposes an asymmetric threat to India. Such an arsenal will fuel an arms race in the Middle East especially in view of the Saudi-Pak nuclear convergence and cooperation with respect to growth of Iran’s nuclear capability. India for its part must disabuse all concerned that it is in a nuclear arms race and promote stability in the region. Perhaps if India can act as an interlocutor between Iran and the USA and bring about a rapprochement between the two countries, it could promote strategic stability in the region and prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. [Shah Alam/CLAWS]

Related posts: Why is Pakistan cranking up its nuclear capacity? The arms race in the Middle East; Not our problem; and, MUD not MAD

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.

Realism in Riyadh

Getting Saudi Arabia to take responsibility for Pakistan’s actions is in India’s interests

At a recent conference in Abu Dhabi on emerging powers and the Middle East, one of the arguments I made was that a stable Afghanistan requires a balance of two distinct sets of powers—India-Iran-Russia on the one hand, and China-Pakistan-Saudi Arabia on the other. Even so, I suggested, Saudi Arabia (and the Gulf Arab states) would be better off not wholly aligning themselves to China, because they would be better off by balancing the two Asian powers than hitching themselves to any one of them.

The Saudi Arabian government has unparalleled clout in Pakistan—not only does it have influence over almost all of Pakistan’s power centres, it is also popular with the masses. Riyadh has managed Pakistan masterfully. While there is a Saudi-Pakistan nuclear nexus (and a Saudi-China ballistic missile nexus) it is focused on Riyadh’s perception of the strategic threat from Iran. And while the Saudi Arabian regime continues to promote its version of Islam across the world—including India—it also recognises that global jihadi terrorism undermines its own interests.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, like any other state, is deeply interested in its own survival and security—just as it uses Islam to promote its interests, it has not shied away from putting down any threats to its own survival. It allowed French special forces to storm the Grand Mosque at Mecca in 1979, it allowed US forces to operate from its soil against Iraq and it has not allowed the Palestinian struggle to come in the way of a modus vivendi with Israel.

Given all this, it makes good sense for India to engage Saudi Arabia on managing the security threat emanating from Pakistan. Shashi Tharoor is right when he said “Saudi Arabia of course has a long and close relationship with Pakistan but that makes Saudi Arabia all the more valuable interlocutor for us” (via Smita Prakash/ANI). Introducing the special issue of Pragati in February 2009, we had argued that the dynamics of Pakistan’s relationship with United States, China and Saudi Arabia are changing and that “there is an opportunity for India to engage in bold, imaginative diplomacy to galvanise the international community to radically change Pakistan’s course.”

Recognising Saudi Arabia as an interlocutor on Pakistan brings Riyadh’s role above the table. India must compel the Kingdom to take responsibility for the actions of its wards in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Even if religious solidarity, personal relationships and the nuclear nexus are factors that shape Saudi policy, Riyadh is unlikely to be insensitive to its overall geopolitical interests. In January 2006, The Acorn wrote that “Saudi Arabia is taking baby steps towards a different relationship with India. Though that may be too gradual for India’s liking, it is nevertheless a welcome development.” So too are the milestones scheduled to be highlighted during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trip this week. [Related Links: Jyoti Malhotra in Business Standard, article & editorial in Arab News]

Just as the Saudis are better off hedging India and China, it is in India’s interests to balance the powers on either side of the Persian Gulf.

Tailpiece: Back at the conference, I challenged the conventional wisdom that it is India-Pakistan tensions (oversimplified to “Kashmir”) that stand in the way of Afghanistan’s stability. Rather, I argued, it is the US-Iran relationship that forces the United States to rely on a state that has opposing interests (Pakistan) and repulse a state that shares them (Iran). Lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement is in India’s interests.

Riyadh passes the buck, and wins a round

Understanding the Saudi Arabian position on sanctions on Iran

Just what did the Saudi foreign minister mean when he refused to back international sanctions on Iran “because we are closer to the threat (and therefore an ) need immediate resolution rather than gradual resolution”? Riyadh’s position is surprising not least because, as it transpired at a recent conference in Abu Dhabi, organised by NYU’s Centre for International Co-operation and Brookings, the Gulf states stridently called upon China to recognise which side of the Persian Gulf it had more at stake and stop shielding Iran from UN sanctions. [Richard Gowan has more about the conference over at Global Dashboard]

And more importantly, just what does is the “immediate resolution” that Prince Saud al-Faisal called for? As Dan Drezner suggests (linkthanks Pragmatic Euphony) these could only mean a deniable nod for preventive air strikes by Israel or a signal that Riyadh will activate its contingency plan for its own nuclear deterrent.

So what could this be about? The answer, in all likelihood, is that Saudi Arabia just passed the buck.

In the event this is about encouraging the United States and Israel to exercise the military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Saudi Arabia benefits to the extent its regional rival suffers while it is the United States and Israel that will attract Muslim anger across the world.

If, on the other hand, the United States & Israel—wisely—do not use force against Iran, Riyadh can blame Washington for being unable to prevent Iran’s nuclearisation and exercise its options to procure its own deterrent. Iran is unlikely to attack Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons anyway, leaving Israel as the net loser. Like India, Israel will have to contend with “jihad under the protection of a nuclear umbrella”.

Either way, Saudi Arabia wins.

In contrast, if it indeed had backed sanctions against Iran, it would have to do its share of the dirty work of having to persuade China to stop protecting Iran. Beijing would extract a price for its acquiescence equal to, if not exceeding the loss to its commercial interests in Iran, which Riyadh would have to substantially bear. In the end, all these costs would come to nought, because sanctions are unlikely to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In the unlikely event that sanctions do work, the outcome would effectively be one where Saudi Arabia would have paid for Israel’s security. It’s not hard to see why the Saudis didn’t back sanctions.

What happens next? It’s unlikely that Riyadh will be satisfied with a US nuclear umbrella even if it were offered by Washington. If Iran proceeds with its plans to build a nuclear weapon, we will discover who Pakistan was making all that fissile material for.