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Saudi Arabia Unlikely to Pursue Nuke: Experts
WASHINGTON -- Saudi Arabia is not likely to respond to a nuclear-armed Iran by pursuing a corresponding deterrent, but would instead look to boost its conventional military capabilities and acquire an outside nuclear defense guarantee, according to a new report by the Center for a New American Security.
The United States and partner nations have warned that Tehran's suspected aim to develop a nuclear-weapon capability could lead to an atomic "domino effect" in the Middle East. A rich Persian Gulf nation with a long-running rivalry with Iran, Saudi Arabia is often cited as the Arab state most likely to pursue a nuclear arsenal.
“The Saudis fear that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would tip the balance of regional leadership decisively in Tehran’s favor,” states the report, whose lead author, CNAS senior fellow Colin Kahl, served as deputy assistant Defense secretary for the Middle East from 2009 to 2011. “Saudi leaders also worry that a nuclear deterrent would enable Iran’s coercive diplomacy, allowing Tehran to run higher risks and more effectively push Arab states to accommodate Iranian interests.”
The other two countries most frequently cited as likely to pursue domestic nuclear deterrents to counter Iran -- Egypt and Turkey -- are even less likely to do so than Saudi Arabia, the report says. Egypt lacks the resources to initiate a weapons program and is much less focused on the Iranian nuclear threat than Riyadh, the analysts found. Turkey, meanwhile, is already covered by the NATO nuclear guarantee.
Senior Saudi officials have for years dropped hints that their kingdom might pursue a nuclear deterrent. Former Saudi intelligence chief and royal family member Turki al-Faisal early last year warned Riyadh would have to “study carefully all the options, including the option of acquiring weapons of mass destruction” in order to maintain balance with a nuclear-armed Iran. Tehran says its nuclear program has no military aspect.
The 49-page report does not discount entirely the possibility that Riyadh might open a nuclear weapons production program or alternatively purchase a ready-made capability from Pakistan. It concludes, though, that the famously deliberative House of Saud would ultimately be steered away from these two scenarios for a number of reasons including not wanting to face punitive international sanctions and the possibility of coming under a neutralizing pre-emptive attack by Israel, which in past years has carried out airstrikes on known or suspected nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria.
There is also the fear of causing critical harm to Riyadh’s decades-long security relationship with Washington. “If Riyadh were to seek nuclear weapons, Saudi leaders would have to expect that U.S. security assistance would be dramatically curtailed. …Because the kingdom relies heavily on U.S. contracts for maintenance and spare parts, this would severely undermine the Saudi military’s ability to function and protect the kingdom from internal and external threats. The effect on core Saudi security interests would be immediate and severe,” concludes the report.
Saudi Arabia at present does not have much in the way of nuclear capabilities though it is aggressively pursuing an atomic energy program with support from a number of foreign nations. The oil-rich state is in early talks with the Obama administration on a civilian atomic collaboration agreement that would allow Riyadh to gain access to U.S. nuclear materials and technology “for use in medicine, industry and power generation.”
Kahl, and report co-authors Melissa Dalton and Matthew Irvine, indicated they do not think much of Saudi Arabia’s chances of acquiring an indigenous nuclear weapons capability in anything less than a decade, if at all. “Even if the kingdom’s technical prowess grows over time, any Saudi attempt to develop nuclear weapons would be complicated by significant bureaucratic and managerial challenges. Put bluntly, the Saudi bureaucracy lacks the human capital, managerial expertise, safety culture and regulatory, technical and legal structures necessary to nurture and sustain a robust domestic nuclear program,” the report reads.
Purchasing an outside capability from Pakistan is also unlikely, according to the report. After coming under widespread international condemnation for the nuclear proliferation ring managed for years by lead Pakistani nuclear weapons scientist A.Q. Khan, Islamabad has had to fight hard to regain lost global trust it is obeying nonproliferation rules. Rather than risk coming under renewed international scorn and isolation for selling nuclear weapons technology to Saudi Arabia, Islamabad is more likely to agree to publicly extend a strategic security guarantee over the nation, the experts said.
The two Muslim states already have extensive bilateral military relations and Riyadh for years has provided economic assistance to the poor South Asian nation. There could be a quid pro quo expectation that Islamabad, if asked, would expand its nuclear umbrella to cover Saudi Arabia.
Norm Cigar, director of regional studies at Marine Corp University, said in an interview that Riyadh would be more likely to seek a nuclear guarantee from Islamabad than Washington, even though the United States has a massively larger and more capable nuclear arsenal.
“They were very upset by what they see as the abandonment by American allies of [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak very quickly in the past and have raised doubts about the umbrella, in particularly as long as Israel is within that umbrella,” said Cigar, who is writing a book on Saudi nuclear thinking. In early 2011, Washington pulled its longtime diplomatic support from Mubarak after several weeks of widespread Egyptian protesting.
Cigar said Saudi Arabia is likely to be skeptical of U.S. extended deterrence assurances that also cover Israel as the two Middle Eastern nations have exceedingly poor relations.
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