Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster

Saudi Arabia and Israel keep ratcheting up the pressure to kill the deal for constraining Iran’s nuclear program with the latest gambit a renewed Saudi threat to obtain its own nuclear capability if the Iran deal isn’t scrapped, a warning that may be more bluster than believable, writes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

As if the Mideast weren’t troubled enough, we now learn from Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times that Saudi Arabia has apparently “taken the ‘strategic decision’ to acquire ‘off-the-shelf’ atomic weapons from Pakistan.”

This and many recent similar stories blame the emergence of Saudi Arabia’s alleged nuclear ambitions on President Barack Obama’s perceived failure to check Iran. “Saudi Arabia is so angry at the emerging nuclear agreement between Iran and the major powers that it is threatening to develop its own nuclear capability, one more indication of the deep differences between the United States and the Persian Gulf Arab states over the deal,” commented The New York Times in an editorial on May 15.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah, Amir of the State of Kuwait, as Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders prepare to have a group photo with the President outside of the Laurel Cabin at the conclusion of a summit meeting at Camp David, Maryland, May 14, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama shakes hands with His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah, Amir of the State of Kuwait, as Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders prepare to have a group photo with the President outside of the Laurel Cabin at the conclusion of a summit meeting at Camp David, Maryland, May 14, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Saudi Arabia has been playing the nuclear card for years, however. In 2003, the Saudis leaked a “strategic review” that included the option of acquiring a “nuclear capability” as a deterrent. The Guardian, which broke the story, called it a “worrying development” that reflected “Riyadh’s estrangement from Washington” and “worries about an Iranian nuclear programme.”

In 2006, Saudi Arabia announced its interest in developing a nuclear energy program with other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. As journalists reported at the time, “Few observers doubt that promoting the idea of a joint atomic energy program between the predominantly Sunni Arab states is a way for Saudi Arabia to send a message to the United States that the Arab state will match Tehran’s nuclear power if it needs to.”

Years have passed without the Saudis making good on these threats. And, there are strong reasons to question the veracity of leaks about Riyadh’s nuclear intentions now. Many experts seriously doubt whether the Saudis really intend to break their treaty obligations and risk international sanctions by trying to acquire nuclear weapons, particularly when they have lived with a nuclear-armed Israel for years.

Saudi Arabia would require many years to build nuclear weapons from scratch; the country has only a very modest atomic energy research program, not a single nuclear power reactor, and no known enrichment facilities. Thus Riyadh’s nuclear ambitions only make sense if Saudi Arabia has, as often claimed, arranged with Islamabad to obtain fully armed nuclear weapons in exchange for financing Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Such claims, while not totally implausible, remain “speculation,” according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a leading NGO devoted to proliferation issues. Stories about the Pakistan connection originated with a former Saudi diplomat who defected to the United States in the 1990s. He also claimed that Saudi Arabia provided almost $5 billion to Saddam Hussein to finance an Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

“Riyadh has denied the veracity of Khilewi’s statements, and most experts dismiss their credibility,” according to NTI. “Most analysts believe it highly unlikely Pakistan would ever follow through with such an agreement, were it to even exist, given a host of disincentives.”

The story has been kept alive over the years by Israeli intelligence leaks. As BBC news reported in 2013, “it is Israeli information – that Saudi Arabia is now ready to take delivery of finished warheads for its long-range missiles – that informs some recent US and NATO intelligence reporting. Israel of course shares Saudi Arabia’s motive in wanting to worry the US into containing Iran.”

Pakistan called the claim of a nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia “speculative, mischievous and baseless.” Of course, Islamabad would say that even if the deal were real. But Pakistan would face “huge disincentives” against transferring nuclear weapons, including the threat of international sanctions and the loss of military aid from Washington, notes Philipp Bleek, a proliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

“Moreover,” Bleek writes, “Pakistan is locked in an arms race with archrival India, and New Delhi’s long-term nuclear weapon production capabilities significantly exceed those of Islamabad, so the latter can ill-afford to spare a meaningful number of nuclear weapons.” Pakistan’s recent refusal to send troops to support Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen is further evidence that it is no puppet of Riyadh.

Bleek observes that the very frequency of leaks about Saudi Arabia’s nuclear intentions weighs against the seriousness of that threat:

“History suggests that while some states have trumpeted their potential desire for nuclear weapons, think Germany in the early years of the Cold War, or Japan more recently, they tend not to be those that later went on to actually acquire them. And for good reason: calling attention to proliferation intentions is counterproductive if one is intent on actually proliferating. Instead, states tend to draw attention to their potential proliferation in the service of another goal: rallying others to address the security concerns that are motivating potential proliferation, and especially securing protection from powerful allies.”

Saudi Arabia’s latest nuclear leaks may be having their intended effect of bolstering the Arab monarchy’s bargaining leverage with Washington. Although President Obama stopped short of promising a formal military alliance at the recent summit with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, he reaffirmed America’s “ironclad commitment to the security of our gulf partners,” and promised more wide-ranging military aid, including creation of “an early-warning capability for a regional missile defense system.”

The Obama administration should stop making such concessions in the face of dubious Saudi proliferation warnings. It should simply stick to its course of seeking a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran. Such an agreement remains the best guarantee of Saudi Arabia’s long-term security. And in the short term, the Saudis have no legitimate reason to fear Iran’s nuclear program, which is one of the most closely inspected on Earth.

Iran has no known nuclear weapons capability and has enriched uranium only to levels useful for medical or peaceful atomic energy applications. The International Atomic Energy Agency has uncovered no substantiated evidence of Iran attempting to break out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Saudi Arabia is also a signatory.

If the Saudis ignore such evidence and really do seek nuclear weapons from Pakistan, the White House should take a hard line and follow the example set by the Ford administration in 1976, which warned South Korea that it would “review the entire spectrum of its relations” if Seoul moved to develop nuclear weapons.

Ideally, the United States should also begin exploring a more productive strategy for reassuring both Saudi Arabia and Iran without making concessions to either one. Instead of selling more arms, reaching new defense pacts, or cracking down further on Iran, why not get behind Saudi Arabia’s longstanding support for a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East?

That goal was endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2012. It may be a political non-starter for now in Washington, but the surest way to reduce the risk of proliferation in the Middle East would be to inspect, control, and eventually eliminate the region’s one existing nuclear arsenal, in Israel.

Jonathan Marshall is an independent researcher living in San Anselmo, California. Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; and The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings.

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3 comments for “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster

  1. Zachary Smith
    May 19, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    None of this makes any sense to me. Why on earth would Saudi Arabia have accepted promises in return for hard money? After all, a future government in Pakistan could simply say that they were reneging on the deal. Seems to me that the Saudis would have gotten their sample weapons early in the production cycle, and with the option to swap them for new and improved models.

    In 1987 the Saudis bought a few long-range missiles from China. They purchased a newer model in 2007. Seems to me these were entirely useless without nuclear warheads.

    Which brings us to Israel – a nation which ought to have totally freaked out at the prospect of the Saudis having such weapons. But perhaps it wasn’t a problem for them after all. Those old liquid fuel models took hours to get ready for launch.

    Given how Israel had already cooperated with South Africa to provide that nation a stockpile of fully-functional A-bombs, a person doesn’t have to warp his brain to imagine them tolerating a Saudi nuclear force so long as they held the keys. Pure speculation of course, but why not a permanent force of Israeli observers at the missile base to ensure that any launches weren’t in THEIR direction?

    With the advent of the newer DF-21 with solid fuel, the warning time would be much less, but on the other hand Israel now has a missile defense which could challenge a simple Saudi attack. And of course there is the retaliation aspect. Most important of all, Saudi Arabia has proved to be a reliable partner of the shitty little apartheid state. For some odd reason, none of the many terror forces funded by Saudi Arabia ever attack Israel. The swarms of terrorists in Syria are not only permitted, but are also getting Israeli air and medical support.

    If there is anything to this issue at all, it might be as simple as Saudi Arabia making a subtle public announcement that it is already a nuclear power.

    • dahoit
      May 22, 2015 at 11:06 am

      No way in hell the Zionists will let their boy toys the Saudis have nukes.No way.
      Just like they will never give up their nukes,the biggest error in modern history,letting these wacko monsters have them.

  2. Cal
    May 20, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    Let the House of Saud buy themselves some nukes…still small potatoes in the big picture.
    Would they risk their oily ‘thrones’ –which is the only thing these former minor tribal chieftians, before the UK empire made them ‘royalty’, actually care about—by using them? I doubt it.
    The only actors I currently see that might go that far are the Modi cult in India and the delusional chosen cult in Israel who have gotten too big for their britches thanks to US favortism and think they are more powerful than they are.

    http://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces

    Status of World Nuclear Forces
    More than two decades after the Cold War ended, the world’s combined inventory of nuclear warheads remains at a very high level: approximately 15,700. Of these, around 4,100 warheads are considered operational, of which about 1,800 US and Russian warheads are on high alert, ready for use on short notice.
    Despite significant reductions in US, Russian, French and British nuclear forces compared with Cold War levels, all the nuclear weapon states continue to modernize their remaining nuclear forces and appear committed to retaining nuclear weapons for the indefinite future. For an overview of global modernization programs, see this 2014 article.
    The exact number of nuclear weapons in each country’s possession is a closely held national secret. Despite this limitation, however, publicly available information, careful analysis of historical records, and occasional leaks make it possible to make best estimates about the size and composition of the national nuclear weapon stockpiles:

    Status of World Nuclear Forces 2015*
    Country Deployed
    Strategic Deployed
    Nonstrategic Reserve/
    Nondeployed Military
    Stockpile Total Inventory
    Russia 1,780a 0b 2,720c 4,500 7,500d
    United States 1,900e 180f 2,620g 4,700h 7,200i
    France 290j n.a. 10j 300 300
    China 0k ?k 250 250 250k
    United Kingdom 150l n.a. 65 215 215l
    Israel 0 n.a. 80 80 80m
    Pakistan 0 n.a. 100-120 100-120 100-120n
    India 0 n.a. 90-110 90-110 90-110o
    North Korea 0 n.a. <10 <10 <10p
    Total:q ~4,120 ~180 ~6,000 ~10,300 ~15,700
    * All numbers are approximate estimates and further described in the Nuclear Notebook in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and the nuclear appendix in the SIPRI Yearbook. See also status and 10-year projection of U.S. and Russian forces. Additional reports are published on the FAS Strategic Security Blog. Unlike those publications, this table is updated continuously as new information becomes available. Current update: April 28, 2015

    We could solve a whole host of world problems by making Russia our Numero Uno Ally and Co- Cop of the world. Biggest mistake the US ever made was not doing that after WWII.

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