08/08/2011 - 04:06

What next: A Sunni bomb?

Pervez Hoodbhoy

Pervez Hoodbhoy

Hoodbhoy has taught in the physics department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad for 40 years and now also teaches at...

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The Islamic Republic of Iran stands at the threshold to the bomb. In 2010 it had more than enough low-enriched uranium (some 2,152 kilograms) to make its first bomb's worth of weapons-grade uranium. The LEU would have become highly enriched uranium in roughly 10 weeks had it been fed into the 4,186 centrifuges then operating. Thousands of other centrifuges are also known to be operating at the Natanz secret nuclear facility. Even if Iran had not received a bomb design from the so-called father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, A. Q. Khan, the six-decade-old physics of implosion devices would be no mystery to Tehran's sophisticated nuclear scientists. Iran now awaits only a political decision to make the bomb.

What if Iran chooses to cross the threshold? Among other likely consequences, an Iranian bomb would be a powerful stimulus pushing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to follow and seek the first Sunni bomb. The first, yes. Though also a Sunni-majority state, Pakistan built its bomb not for Islamic reasons, but to counter India's nuclear arsenal. In fact, Shiite-majority Iran enthusiastically hailed Pakistan's 1998 test of an atomic device. Clearly, the Iranian leadership did not see Pakistan's bomb as a threat.

But Sunni Saudi Arabia sees Shia Iran as its primary enemy. The two are bitter rivals that, post-Iranian revolution, have vied for influence in the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia has the world's largest petroleum reserves, Iran the second. Saudi Arabia is the biggest buyer of advanced US weapons and is run by expatriates. It is America's golden goose, protected by US military might. But fiercely nationalist Iran expelled US oil companies after the revolution and is building its own scientific base.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are theocracies, with their respective theologies locked in an irresolvable conflict that began with the death of the Prophet of Islam some 15 centuries ago. Saudi Arabia is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the birthplace of Islam. It is the leader of the Sunni world, culturally conservative, and Arab.

On the other hand, Iran is a Persian, Shia-majority state that, after its revolution, sought to be the leader of all Muslim revolutionaries, both Shia and Sunni, who wanted to confront the West. Iran has a large class of educated and forward-looking young people who enjoy more cultural freedom than most Arab countries allow. But Iran is run by a backward-looking Guardian Council of clerics who, although their initial revolutionary ardor has gone, still seek to project Iranian power in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine.

Thanks to Wikileaks, it is now well known that that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly urged the US to destroy Iran's nuclear program and "cut off the head of the snake" by launching military strikes. In June, the influential former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador in London and Washington, Prince Turki bin Faisal, spoke to an audience from the British and American military and security community in England. Some parts of the speech, which has been circulated privately, are worth a careful read.

Faisal began by reminding his audience why the Kingdom feels so confident today: "Saudi Arabia represents over 20 percent of the combined GDP of the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region." Describing Iran as "a paper tiger with steel claws," Faisal accused Tehran of "meddling and destabilizing efforts in countries with Shiite majorities." He then went on to express his country's position on nuclear weapons: "First, 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."

The Saudi opposition to Israeli nuclear weapons was characteristically mild: "A zone free of weapons of mass destruction is the best means to get Iran and Israel to give up nuclear weapons." Saudi enthusiasm for the bomb is inspired by Iran, not by nuclear-armed Israel.

Islam and the bomb. The concept of the "Islamic bomb" was first introduced by a Muslim leader, not a Westerner. Addressing posterity from the cell in a Rawalpindi jail where he awaited eventual execution, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's former prime minister and the architect of its nuclear program, wrote in 1977: "We know that Israel and South Africa have full nuclear capability. The Christian, Jewish, and Hindu civilizations have this capability. The communist powers also possess it. Only the Islamic civilization was without it, but that position was about to change."

Pakistan made its first nuclear weapon in 1985 and now has many. Nevertheless, it is difficult, if not impossible, to envisage it -- or any Muslim state -- using an Islamic bomb for defense of the ummah against the United States or Israel. Although Khan has acknowledged transfer of nuclear materials and knowledge from Pakistan to other countries, his actions were not inspired by religion. In 2011, to get even with opponents, he made available documents showing that he personally transferred more than $3 million in payments by North Korea to senior officers in the Pakistani military, who subsequently approved his sharing of technical know-how and equipment with Pyongyang. If the released letter is genuine, then this episode demonstrates corruption, not ideological sympathy.

While revolutionary Iran supported the notion of an Islamic bomb, it never benefited from the concept. The main sectarian division within Islam -- between Sunni and Shia -- was too big a hurdle.

There were times when Iran was considered among Pakistan's closest allies. It was the first country to recognize the newly independent Pakistan in 1947. In the 1965 war with India, Pakistani fighter jets flew to Iranian bases in Zahidan and Mehrabad for protection. Iran's pro-US Shah was a popular figure in Pakistan, and Iran opened its universities wide to Pakistani students. Although it is 80 percent Sunni, with only a 15-20 percent Shia minority, Pakistan once considered Iran as a brother Muslim country.

In 1979, Khomenei's Islamic revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan set realignments in motion. As Iran exited the US orbit, Pakistan moved close to the Americans to fight the Soviets. With financial assistance from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the US created and armed the mujahideen. The CIA placed advertisements in journals and newspapers across the world, inviting the most hardened of Islamic fighters to participate in holy war against communist infidels. Although this worked brilliantly, the dynamics that eventually led to 9/11 had been put in place.

Iran too supported the mujahideen. But it supported the Northern Alliance while Pakistan supported the Pashtun Taliban. As religion assumed centrality in matters of state in both Pakistan and Iran, rifts widened. In the wake of the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan, the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996. An initial selective killing of Shias was followed by a massacre of more than 5,000 in Bamiyan province. Iran soon amassed 300,000 troops at the Afghan border and threatened to attack the Pakistan-supported Taliban government. Today Iran accuses Pakistan of harboring terrorist anti-Iran groups on its soil and allowing Sunni extremists to ravage Pakistan's Shia minority.

On the nuclear front, Pakistan has always publicly defended Iran's right to nuclear technology and secretly helped Iran's nuclear weapon program until the mid 1990's. But even at that time, subterranean voices within the Pakistani establishment spoke against giving nuclear support to Iran. The discomfort during the Musharraf regime was confirmed by confidential American cables, revealed by Wikileaks and highlighted by the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. The cables detail Pakistan's efforts to dissuade Iran from pursuing its weapons program. In late 2006, the cables say, former Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri told the Americans, "We are the only Muslim country [with such a weapon] and don't want anyone else to get it."

But Iran may acquire the bomb, Pakistani desires notwithstanding. Then what?

The Saudi-Pakistan connection. Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Sultan was on the mark when, speaking about Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, he said, "It's probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries." Both countries are Sunni and conservative; both have ruling oligarchies (though one is dynastic and the other military). Their ties to the United States have a strong similarity: Both are American client states, but their populations deeply resent the master-client relationship.

Saudi Arabia's footprint in Pakistan has grown steadily since the early 1970s. A huge migration of Pakistani workers to newly rich Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, brought them into contact with a conservative brand of Islam different from the one they had grown up with. Many came back transformed. Since the 1960s, Pakistan has received more aid from Saudi Arabia than any country outside the Arab world. Major funding for Pakistan's nuclear program came from Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and '80s; it is said that suitcases of Saudi cash were brought into Pakistan.

Pakistani leaders, political and military, frequently traveled to the kingdom to pay homage. After India tested its bomb in May 1998, Pakistan mulled the appropriate response. Saudi Arabia's promise of 50,000 barrels of free oil a day helped Pakistan decide in favor of testing its own device, and Saudi oil cushioned the impact of subsequent Western sanctions.

The Pakistani quid pro quo for the Saudi oil largesse has been soldiers, airmen, and military expertise. Saudi officers are trained today at Pakistan's national defense colleges. The Pakistan Air Force helped create the Royal Saudi Air Force, and Saudi Arabia is said to have purchased ballistic missiles produced in Pakistan.

So what happens if Iran goes nuclear, and Saudi Arabia wants to follow?

For all its wealth, Saudi Arabia does not have the technical and scientific base to create a nuclear infrastructure. It has many expatriate-staffed universities, and tens of thousands of Saudi students have been sent to universities overseas. But because of an ideological attitude unsuited to the acquisition of modern scientific skills, there has been little success in producing a significant number of accomplished Saudi engineers and scientists.

Perforce, a Saudi Arabia in search of the bomb will likely turn to Pakistan for help. An outright transfer of nuclear weapons by Pakistan to Saudi Arabia is improbable. Surely this would lead to extreme reaction from the United States and Europe.

Instead, the kingdom's route to nuclear weapons is likely to be long, beginning with the acquisition of nuclear reactors for electricity generation. The spent fuel from reactors can be reprocessed for plutonium. Like Iran, Saudi Arabia will have to find creative ways for skirting various treaty obstacles. But it will doubtless take heart from the US decision to "forgive" India for its nuclear testing in 1998 and eventually reward it with a nuclear deal.

The kingdom's first step toward making nuclear weapons may soon be taken. In June 2011, it revealed plans to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next 20 years at a cost of more than $300 billion. To create, run, and maintain the resulting nuclear infrastructure will require importing large numbers of technical workers. Some will no doubt be brought over from the West, Russia, and countries once part of the former Soviet Union.

But 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. Having been in the business of producing nuclear weapons for nearly 30 years under difficult circumstances, they would also be familiar with supplier chains for hard-to-get items needed in a weapons program. And because salaries in Saudi Arabia far exceed those in Pakistan, many qualified people could well ask for leave from their parent institutions at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, Kahuta Research Laboratories, and National Development Complex.

Living with Islamic bombs. Iran's present direction suggests that the historical clash between Sunni and Shia brands of Islam could move into the nuclear arena. Can anything be done to prevent this?

Any solution is deeply complicated by one unfortunate fact: The world's pre-eminent power, the United States, lacks the moral authority to act effectively in the domain of nuclear proliferation. Whereas it has periodically threatened Iran with a nuclear holocaust for trying to develop nuclear weapons, it has rewarded, to various degrees, other countries -- Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea -- that developed such weapons surreptitiously.

The US has tried threats and coercion with Iran, but never the power of humility. Had American leaders acknowledged having wronged Iran in 1953 by engineering the coup which brought back the Shah, Iranian nuclear nationalism might have been significantly weakened. It is now probably too late for this tack.

Short of war, every attempt must be made to dissuade Iran. But nuclear nationalism and Persian pride could still override the pain of sanctions. And what if Iran does make the bomb or get close to it? Well, then the international community must accept this state of affairs as just another nasty fact of life. The world will have yet another nuclear state, surely a bad, but not catastrophic, thing. One can see Iranians becoming steadily more pragmatic and less revolutionary since 1997; in time their nuclear weapons will become like everybody else's.

The world needs fewer nuclear weapons, not more. But attacking Iran is not an option. This rash step would unleash dynamics over which the US and Israel will have little control. Sunni-Shia divisions will be pushed aside; Muslims will unite against a common enemy. However unwelcome Iran's bomb -- and the Sunni bomb that could someday follow -- may be, it is far better to live with potential danger than to knowingly create a holocaust.