The Saudi Nuclear Option

Written by Yoel Guzansky


01_KINGOn the basis of a memo written by the US Secretary of Defense, the New York Times reported recently that "the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran's steady progress toward nuclear capability."

On the same day, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia issued a royal order establishing a science complex called King Abdullah City dedicated solely to "research and development of all aspects of nuclear energy." Coincidence?

Apparently. However, the steady progress made by Iran in its nuclear program and the fact that so far America's policy on the matter has failed to prove itself have caused concern in Riyadh about relying exclusively on possible American defense guarantees.

Accordingly, what options are open to Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis the reality of a nuclear Iran? Intensify cooperation with the United States? Turn a blind eye and maintain good neighborly relations with Iran? Or perhaps acquire its own nuclear deterrence? Saudi Arabia's concern that in certain scenarios it is liable to find itself having to tackle a nuclear Iran by itself may lead it to examine all the options.

Saudi Arabia may well understand that over time it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to prevent a state such as Iran - that along with its technological and economic capabilities made a strategic decision to develop nuclear capability - from completing its mission: Tehran may have concluded that its security constraints as well as the prestige and influence associated with having such weapons outweigh the political and economic cost it is paying and will continue to pay. Thus as early as 2006, at the annual Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, along with the other Gulf states, announced its interest in developing independent nuclear programs for peaceful purposes. Though not made public, the primary motivation was Iran's nuclear ambition.

As the leading Arab state in the Gulf (and given Egypt's weakness, perhaps the leading state in the Arab world) and the ideological-religious rival and main competitor for regional influence with Iran, Saudi Arabia will find it difficult to do nothing should Iran obtain military nuclear capability. As early as 2003, Aharon Ze'evi Farkash, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, reported to the Knesset's Foreign Relations and Defense Committee that "the Saudis are in contact with Pakistan for purchasing nuclear warheads for the surface-to-surface missiles in their arsenal...They have decided to act in order to redress the balance of terror vis-à-vis Iran's armament, and intend to deploy Pakistani warheads on their soil."

Despite Saudi Arabia's relative transparency and cooperation with the international community on nuclear issues, there are more than a few doubts as to its credibility, given that in the past it had very close relations with Pakistan. More than once the claim has been made that Saudi Arabia was in fact behind the financing of Pakistan's nuclear and missile programs. After the Islamic Revolution and throughout the 1980s Pakistan stationed military forces in Saudi Arabia and the two nations cooperated in assisting the Afghani mujahidin. Therefore, should Saudi Arabia find itself in a sensitive security situation, it may well be that it would seek to capitalize on its investment in the Pakistani program.

These two Sunni nations located on either side of Iran have overlapping interests: Pakistan has the knowledge and skilled manpower but lacks the cash, while Saudi Arabia has vast cash reserves but lacks the relevant infrastructures and skilled manpower. Saudi Arabia might seek to balance Iran's power by increasing cooperation, including in the nuclear field, with a friend from the past, despite the political risks - primarily to its relations with the United States - and the fact that this contradicts Saudi international commitments and its own position favoring a nuclear-free Middle East. If Pakistan stations nuclear weapons in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia may not necessarily view this as an infringement of the NPT to which it is a signatory, and certainly not if the weapons remain under Pakistani control. Such a scenario is highly speculative and has been denied both in Islamabad and Riyadh, but it cannot be rejected out of hand, especially if Iran decides that the circumstances are right for it to "break out" for nuclear weapons.

In face of the United States' closed door, Saudi Arabia in the 1980s secretly acquired several dozen Chinese CSS-2 surface-to-surface missiles. Given their low precision, they are appropriate only for carrying nuclear warheads. Yet even if they are somewhat outdated, they supply a base for possible upgrade and for training professional teams.

Future Saudi moves in the field might also be secret, to avoid criticism and to prevent embarrassing the United States. Recently, the Saudi press reported on "upgrading the strategic missile reserves" and the inauguration of a new command and control facility associated with the kingdom's missile force. Riyadh's view that the Iranian threat is serious and immediate was recently expressed by Foreign Minister al-Faisal: "Sanctions are a long-term solution...But we are looking at an Iranian nuclear program within a shorter term because we are closer to the locus of the threat. We are interested in immediate rather than in gradual solutions." Various developments therefore may lead Saudi Arabia to accelerate its timetable, and along with or instead of developing independent nuclear infrastructures, it is not inconceivable that it would prefer buying turnkey components, enter into a military treaty with Pakistan, and in certain scenarios, even deploy Pakistani nuclear forces on Saudi soil because of the urgency and its lack of appropriate infrastructures.

The Saudi strategy perhaps depends most of all on if and how Iran crosses the nuclear threshold. Iran is apparently entrenching its position as a threshold state, which lends it some of the advantages attributed to nuclear states and would allow it, when it deems convenient, to "break out." Should Iran not cross the nuclear threshold, Saudi Arabia may be able to turn a blind eye and take symbolic action such as intensified coordination and cooperation among the Gulf sates. However, should it become certain that Iran is a nuclear state, e.g., through the proof of nuclear testing, Saudi Arabia would feel obligated to acquire similar capability. Signaling that it is prepared to go down this road may be an effective way of pressuring the United States to demonstrate more strongly its commitment to defend the kingdom.

Although in light of America's superior capabilities it seems that Saudi Arabia, at least for now, has no alternative but to rely on the United States, it would be contrary to Saudi practice to put all its eggs in one basket. It is reasonable to think that for its survival, the royal family would seek to keep all options open. If in Riyadh's view its essential security interests are threatened and a clear and present danger to the kingdom's stability emerges, it may prefer to engage in a series of steps, even if contradictory, to ensure its security.

Given its wealth and military weakness, Saudi Arabia would likely seek security arrangements that would grant it more independence in decision making and better chances of maintaining a stable balance of deterrence in the Gulf over time. At present there is no solid evidence that Saudi Arabia intends to go this route even though from its perspective the presence of nuclear weapons in Iran would constitute a serious threat. There are not many states that are as important to the United States as Saudi Arabia, and the implications of "the Saudi option" may force the Americans to prove actively that they are committed to defending the kingdom. Any other policy might prompt a crisis between the two nations, and could have severe ramifications for Israel's strategic environment.

The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis. 

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