12/17/2013 - 10:39

The Saudi proliferation question

Ali Ahmad

Ali Ahmad

Ali Ahmad is postdoctoral research fellow in nuclear technology policy at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and...

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Concerted international efforts to keep Iran a non-nuclear weapon state might seem to constitute good news for Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s top rival for leadership in the Middle East. Instead, the Saudi government is deeply disturbed by a recent interim agreement between Iran and the so-called P5 + 1 countries—the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. The six-month agreement freezes Iran’s enrichment of nuclear fuel above the level needed for commercial nuclear power, halts development of the plutonium-production-capable Arak nuclear plant, and gives International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors greater access to Iran’s declared nuclear facilities. In return, the P5 + 1 has agreed to lift some of the sanctions that have nearly crippled Iran’s economy.

The reason for Saudi anger is complex: Riyadh fears a US-Iran détente at least as much as an Iranian bomb, and those concerns have led some prominent Saudis to talk openly about the possibility the kingdom will obtain nuclear weapons. This is talk that the United States should take seriously. The kingdom has embarked on a commercial nuclear power program that makes little economic sense, but could, if it becomes reality, aid a Saudi nuclear weapons program.

It is vitally important to the security of the Middle East that Iran not gain access to nuclear weapons. It is just as important that Saudi Arabia remain a non-nuclear-weapon nation.

Saudi unease, nuclear hints.The Saudi leadership has witnessed major regional shifts over the last decade: the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq; Iran’s expanding power in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; and, more recently, the successive waves of an Arab Spring that has challenged and sometimes deposed leaders across the Middle East. Rapprochement between the United States and Iran would further strengthen Iran’s position in the region. The Saudi leadership, therefore, feels the need for a long-term security solution that is in their hands and under their control.

The first public hint by Saudi officials that the kingdom would consider acquiring a nuclear weapon as a counterweight to Tehran’s nuclear program came in June 2011. Speaking at the Molesworth Royal Air Force Base in England, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence, said: “It is in our interest that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, for their doing so would compel Saudi Arabia, whose foreign relations are now so fully measured and well assessed, to pursue policies that could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences.”

In May 2012, Dennis Ross, a senior US diplomat and a former envoy to the Middle East, confirmed that in April 2009 King Abdullah explicitly told him, “If they get nuclear weapons, we will get nuclear weapons.” Meanwhile, balancing Iran’s power, even if it means developing a nuclear weapon, is increasingly mentioned in the Saudi and Arab media. Abdul-Rahman Al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi journalist, recently wrote: “If the United States allowed Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, it is our right then to protect ourselves by means that would preserve the balance of power between the two countries, as Pakistan did to face the Indian nuclear threat.”

Questions about Saudi Arabia’s nuclear intentions were greatly magnified in November when the BBC published a lengthy investigative report about an alleged, implicit agreement between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, in which a variety of sources—including Pakistani and Western government officials—concluded that the kingdom “could obtain a bomb at will.” That report quoted Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, as saying that Saudi Arabia has “already paid for the bomb” through its investments in Pakistani nuclear projects. 

Israeli voices have often expressed their fear of a Saudi nuclear weapon, giving more force to Riyadh’s warnings and exerting pressure on Washington and the international community to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Yoel Guzansky, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, wrote: “The kingdom may conclude that its security constraints as well as the attendant prestige and influence generated by having a bomb outweigh the political and economic costs it will pay.” 

The US-Saudi relationship is a major factor in Riyadh’s calculations of its security needs. The United States has maintained a strategic military presence in Saudi Arabia since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Added to the continued American supply of weapons to the kingdom, this presence has created what was once perceived as an unshakable alliance and partnership. Recent differences over Syria, Egypt, and Iran’s nuclear program have, however, led to serious strains in that relationship. Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, a well-connected former Saudi ambassador to Washington and one of the kingdom’s foreign policy makers, indicated that the kingdom would make a “major shift” in relations with the United States in protest for its inaction over Syria and overtures to Iran. 

Despite 34 years of increasingly stringent economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, Iran today is a stable country of expanding power in the region. The Saudis are surely contemplating what would happen if stringent economic sanctions were fully lifted, and Iran became a country with friendly ties to the United States and other major powers. Saudi Arabian officials have said the country would seek nuclear weapons if Iran acquired them. There is also an unfortunate but real possibility that the kingdom would seek the bomb to counterbalance the influence of Tehran, even if Iran and the P5 + 1 came to a permanent agreement that purported to force Iran to give up nuclear weapons efforts.

Where would a Saudi bomb come from? If Saudi Arabia were to acquire a nuclear weapon, many observers have suggested that it would come from Pakistan, on which the Saudis have lavished billions of dollars in aid since the 1960s. More important, the kingdom has allegedly contributed to financing Islamabad’s nuclear program and maintains strong links with the Pakistani military and intelligence.

Despite the close ties between the two countries, however, Pakistan is unlikely to supply Saudi Arabia directly with a nuclear weapon. Islamabad is quite aware of the diplomatic and economic sanctions it would incur, if the international community discovered that it had provided the Saudis with a working bomb.

Although it is unlikely that nuclear weapons sit in Pakistan, waiting to be shipped to Saudi Arabia, the kingdom could turn to nuclear power as a path toward nuclear weapons. With access to sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, the kingdom would be able to obtain weapon-grade uranium and plutonium to serve a clandestine nuclear weapon program. Then, the help of Pakistani scientists and engineers would come in handy. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a renowned Pakistani physicist and defense analyst, argues: “Saudi Arabia will likely find engineering and scientific skills from Pakistan particularly desirable. As Sunni Muslims, Pakistanis would presumably be sympathetic with the kingdom’s larger goals.” 

Saudi Arabia has had a longstanding, although limited, interest in nuclear technology. Over the decades, the arguments by nuclear power advocates typically stressed the country’s growing demand for electricity and desalinated water.

The Saudi nuclear program took physical form in 2010, with the establishment of King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) in Riyadh. In 2012, the organization came out with its first set of projections, which envisioned that by 2032, out of a total 123 gigawatts of electricity generation capacity in the country, 18 would be contributed by nuclear power. The country also has ambitious plans to develop alternative energy sources, particularly solar. 

An ongoing study conducted by M.V. Ramana and the author at Princeton University showed that the economics of nuclear-generated electricity in Saudi Arabia is questionable.The presence of large reserves of natural gas—even though only 15 percent of Saudi Arabia has been explored for gas—and the promising prospects for solar power, given the kingdom’s obvious geographic advantage in that field, make nuclear power an economically unsuitable option in Saudi Arabia. Hence, the ambitious projections laid out in 2011 may not be realized. In other words, Saudi Arabia's motivation for pursuing nuclear technology is not based on a careful economic assessment of energy options, but on more complex security and political calculations. We note, also, that it is quite common for countries to start with very ambitious nuclear construction plans, but these are seldom realized.

Despite the traditional and deliberate ambiguity in the rationale of decision-making in the kingdom, the Saudi leadership is serious about acquiring a nuclear weapon if Iran succeeds in developing one. The implications of the recent agreement between the P5+1 and Iran will certainly intensify Saudi’s insecurity. The continuation of the Iranian nuclear program, be it under the international umbrella or not, is perceived by Riyadh as a major, and perhaps existential, threat. Consequently, the risk of nuclear proliferation and an arms race in the Middle East must not be dismissed during talks with the Saudis about their nuclear power program.