A prominent Saudi Arabian envoy and member of the ruling al-Saud family strongly hinted that if Iran were to acquire a nuclear deterrent, Riyadh would move to do the same, the London Guardian reported on Wednesday (see GSN, Dec. 17, 2010).
Former Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States Prince Turki al-Faisal told high-ranking NATO officers earlier in June at a private event in the United Kingdom that if Tehran builds an atomic weapon, "it would compel Saudi Arabia ... to pursue policies which could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences."
While Turki did not detail what those actions by Riyadh would be, a high-ranking Saudi official with close ties to the diplomat said the meaning of his remarks was evident.
"We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don't," the Saudi official said. "It's as simple as that. If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit."
Washington and many other governments see in Iran's nuclear program a covert attempt to develop a military deterrent. Tehran insists its atomic activities are entirely peaceful in nature.
Experts said the Saudi diplomat's veiled threat about building nuclear bombs could have been aimed primarily at keeping Western states focused on containing Iran rather than telegraphing a serious Saudi interest in a nuclear deterrent, as the diplomatic and technical hurdles to achieving such a feat would be enormous.
Riyadh officials said the Saudi government would continue to pursue an atomic energy generation capacity. Saudi Arabia earlier this month announced ambitious plans to build 16 reactors in the next 20 years (see GSN, June 2).
The wealthy oil state is eying a potential civilian atomic trade agreement with Washington that could potentially allow Riyadh to purchase uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies. Such technologies can be used to generate both nuclear fuel and weapon-grade material (see GSN, Jan. 25).
Turki told NATO officials at the conference that Tehran was a "paper tiger with steel claws" that was "meddling and destabilizing" other Middle Eastern states.
While the ex-Saudi intelligence chief holds no formal portfolio, he is viewed as a de facto ambassador-at-large for the al-Saud family and as well as a possible future foreign policy chief.
Saudi Arabian envoys and government officials are working to build a regional and global consensus against Iran, accusing the Gulf nation of interfering in other Arab states' affairs and attempting to use popular regional uprisings toward its own ends.
"Iran is very sensitive about other countries meddling in its affairs," Turki said to NATO officials, according to a transcript of his remarks. "But it should treat others like it expects to be treated. The kingdom expects Iran to practice what it preaches."
He reaffirmed Riyadh's support for the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East that would encompass both Israel and Iran and would be backed by the U.N. Security Council and its five permanent members -- nuclear powers China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Turki said sanctions targeting Iran's missile and nuclear programs were having an impact. He said he appreciated the prevailing opinion in Washington that a military attack on Iran's atomic installations was inadvisable (Jason Burke, London Guardian, June 29).