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Saudi Arabia Bought Chinese Missiles With U.S. Backing: Report

Chinese nuclear-capable missiles, shown on display at a 2009 parade in Beijing. The United States reportedly facilitated a Chinese sale of ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in 2007, but demanded assurance that the arms were unsuited for nuclear payloads. Chinese nuclear-capable missiles, shown on display at a 2009 parade in Beijing. The United States reportedly facilitated a Chinese sale of ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in 2007, but demanded assurance that the arms were unsuited for nuclear payloads. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

The CIA backed a sale of Chinese ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia, but sought assurance that the arms were not nuclear-ready, Newsweek reports.

The sale of the Dongfeng-21 missiles took shape in mid-2007, in a string of meetings held over several months between CIA officials and Saudi air force personnel, an informed intelligence insider told the magazine. The source said a pair of CIA experts in Saudi Arabia examined the weapons in their packaging, and determined that they were not intended to hold nuclear payloads.

The alleged arrangement has not been confirmed by any of the three governments said to have participated.

Analysts gave diverging assessments of what advancement in capabilities the midrange, solid-fuel arms would offer over an earlier supply of Dongfeng-3 missiles that Saudi Arabia received from China in the late 1980s.

Nuclear specialist Jeffrey Lewis said the weapons in the reported sale are more capable than their predecessors for targeting "high-value targets in Tehran, like presidential palaces or supreme-leader palaces." The DF-21 also can be launched on shorter notice, according to Newsweek.

According to another expert, the impact of the reported sale would be minimal if the missiles are not tipped with nuclear warheads.

"A conventional warhead on the DF-21 would be too small to cause the kind of damage that would have a strategic impact," according to Kenneth Pollack, a one-time Middle East specialist for the CIA and White House.

Lewis, though, suggested such missiles could be altered to accommodate nuclear payloads.

More broadly, Saudi Arabia "has started talking a lot about its Strategic Missile Force" in recent years, and "seems to be hinting that it has bought at least two new types of ballistic missiles," according to a still-unpublished article by Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center.

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