Two new analyses published in the online journal Middle East Quarterly (MEQ) explore whether Saudi Arabia would be willing to rely on the United States to deter a hostile Iran or would try to develop its own nuclear weapons capability.
In his MEQ article, “Will Riyadh Get the Bomb?”
, British-based Mideast analyst Naser al-Tamimi writes that there are indications the Saudi leadership may be divided on the nuclear question.
Officials like former Ambassador to the United States Bandar bin Sultan, now director of the Saudi intelligence agency, are said to back a nuclear military program in collaboration with Pakistan, while others like Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal oppose such a course and prefer to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for protection.
Saudi Arabia might be reluctant to forge ahead in an effort to develop nuclear weapons — a course that could worsen relations with the United States, according to Tamimi, who believes Washington might regard such a move as a violation of a 2008 memorandum of understanding, in which it promised assistance with civilian nuclear power in exchange for Saudi willingness to forgo “sensitive” (i.e. nuclear) technologies.
Similarly, planned upgrades to Saudi military capabilities include the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, used to shoot down short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and a $30 billion upgrade of the Saudi navy which would strengthen the kingdom’s ability to project power in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, making a nuclear deterrent less necessary, he writes.
A Saudi atomic weapons program would face potentially large obstacles in the form of “the immature state of the Saudi nuclear technology infrastructure,” Tamimi adds “The country lacks the human expertise and technical knowledge necessary to develop a nuclear weapons program on its own.”
But Tamimi and Israeli analyst Yoel Guzansky, author of an accompanying MEQ article entitled “Questioning Riyadh’s Nuclear Rationale,”
also suggest there could be countervailing reasons why the Saudis might try for a military nuclear capability – in particular, a hostile Iran.
Diplomatic cables obtained by Wikileaks show that King Abdullah privately warned Washington in 2008 that if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would do the same.
Saudi Arabia has no current plan for a unilateral military program, but the dynamics “will change immediately if the Iranians develop their own nuclear capability,” a senior Saudi source told the London Times in February 2012.
The official added that from a political perspective it would be “completely unacceptable” for Iran and not Saudi Arabia to have such a capability.
After Iran, Saudi Arabia “is the number one candidate for further nuclear proliferation in the Middle East,” Guzansky writes. ”The kingdom may conclude that its security constraints as well as the attendant prestige and influence generated by a bomb outweigh the political and economic costs it will pay.”
Doubts about Washington’s reliability could “encourage Riyadh to shorten timetables for developing an independent nuclear infrastructure . . . or to enter into a security compact of one sort with another power. Sunni-majority Pakistan [a long-time ally of Saudi Arabia] has emerged as the natural candidate for such an arrangement,” Guzansky writes.
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