Vying for Influence: Saudi Arabia’s Reaction to Iran’s Advancing Nuclear Program

Vying for Influence: Saudi Arabia’s Reaction to Iran’s Advancing Nuclear Program

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Jessica Drum

Graduate Research Assistant, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Rapidly increasing oil prices in 2007-08 (in which a barrel of petroleum reached over $120 in April of 2008, up from almost $67 in April of 2007),[1] coupled with escalating regional instability have set the stage for record-breaking arms sales to the Middle East. Leading this charge to arms is Saudi Arabia. The Idex Arms Fair held in Dubai in February 2007 broke all previous spending records for the show. Saudi spending alone accounted for "almost 50bn in military hardware, including fighter aircraft, cruise missiles, attack helicopters and more than 300 new tanks."[2] These purchases represent a marked increase from similar spending at the exhibition in 2005, where some $2 billion in deals were made.[3] Much of this regional arms build-up has been fuelled by concerns regarding the Iranian nuclear program.

Home to the world's largest Shi‘a population, Iran faces a particularly tough challenge in the battle for influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Iran are currently involved in a power struggle, with each vying for leadership and influence in the Middle East.[4] Saudi Arabia is a predominantly Sunni Arab state that draws much of its clout and legitimacy from its role as guardian of The Two Holy Places: Mecca, the birthplace of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, and Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad is buried. In addition to this role, Saudi Arabia is known for its propensity to use its checkbook and diplomacy to achieve its foreign policy objectives. Iran on the other hand, while also committed to financing its foreign policy objectives, carries this out in a more assertive manner than Saudi Arabia.

Although Iran, like Saudi Arabia, is blessed with sizable oil deposits the country was recently forced to impose gasoline rations due largely to its lack of refining capability and its unaffordable gasoline subsidies. This is surprising, given that Iran happens to be the fourth largest oil producer in the world. With around a quarter of the population under the age of 15,[5] Iran is also facing serious domestic pressures due to the young age of its rapidly growing population combined with a stagnant, underdeveloped economy.

Iranian Efforts to Influence Events in the Middle East

Iran's efforts to influence events in the Middle East by supporting its allies are often carried out in direct counterbalance to the efforts of the United States and its allies. This has been illustrated through Iran's pledge of funds to the ostracized Hamas after most Western states labeled Hamas a terrorist organization and decided to cease support of a Palestinian government run by Hamas.[6] Following an initial Arab suspension of aid, Iran pledged the funds necessary to keep the Palestinian government working, with Ayatollah Khamenei calling on Muslim nations to "provide financial aid to the Palestinians."[7] In response to a U.S. call to suspend aid, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister said "it would be height of irony, at the time when we need to take care of these people who are seeking peace, that we shall fall short of doing so."[8] It is difficult to argue that this move was not influenced by a Saudi need to not let Iran take a leadership role in the Palestinian crisis. It was also crucial that Saudi Arabia not appear to be a puppet of the United States. Equally important has been the Saudi need to support the Palestinian people and not come across as uninvolved in helping and financially supporting them during a time when nearly all Western aid donors had eliminated everything but essential humanitarian aid.

As Iran continues to move forward on its path of nuclear ambition toward their declared goal of energy independence, it risks increased alienation from the international community, and further sanctions by the Security Council. In spite of these risks, or perhaps in reaction to international threats, Iran has continued forward, with President Ahmadinejad asserting at every turn that not only do the Iranian people have the right to peaceful nuclear technology but also that Iran's nuclear program is just that, for peaceful purposes only. On April 8, 2008, Iran announced the installation of 6,000 new uranium-enrichment centrifuges at its nuclear facility. This addition will greatly increase Iran's capacity for producing enriched uranium, further propelling Tehran towards its nuclear goals.

As things stand, in response to the Iranian nuclear program the Security Council of the United Nations (UNSCR) passed its third resolution, 1803 in March of 2008, which is aimed at halting Iran's uranium enrichment program.[9] The UNSCR's resolutions call on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment or face possible economic and diplomatic sanctions.[10] In spite of these resolutions and multiple other independent sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union, Iran has continued to move forward on uranium enrichment, reporting its successes to the international media.

Friction between Iran and Saudi Arabia (among other Arab states) has also been exacerbated by the Lebanon issue. On the one side is the American and Saudi-backed government in Beirut, which, while legitimately elected, is under considerable strain and struggling to maintain power and stability in the country. On the other side is the Hezbollah-led alliance, which is largely backed by Iran and which aims to overthrow the Lebanese government.

The Relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia

In recent decades, the bilateral relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia has fluctuated from friendly and cooperative to one of open hostility characterized by the elimination of formal diplomatic relations. Both countries are influential states in the region, and this impacts their bilateral ties. While Iran is more populous than Saudi Arabia, the country is Persian, with a majority Shia population, and is regarded with suspicion by many in the Arab world. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia commands great influence with its position as the guardian of the Two Holy Places—Mecca and Medina, the birthplace of Islam, as well as being the largest oil producer in the Middle East.

Prior to the fall of his regime in 1979, Iran's Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi stood alongside the government in Riyadh as an ally of the United States. Under U.S. President Richard Nixon and the Nixon doctrine, which maintained that peace was best pursued through a partnership with American allies, Iran and Saudi Arabia were considered indispensable partners, with their cooperation deemed necessary to maintain peace in the region. In accordance with U.S. tradition of providing military armaments to promote peace, both Iran and Saudi Arabia received military exports from the United States. Between 1970 and 1975 these exports "increased from $1 billion to $10 billion per annum."[11] U.S. military assistance to Iran came to an abrupt end with the Iranian revolution of 1979 while U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia continued.

Thus, by the late 1970s, both Saudi Arabia and Iran had close ties with the United States. Nevertheless, the two states themselves had a troubled relationship. When the Shah fell in Iran, the Saudis were understandably concerned about their own security situation. To add to these concerns, in the aftermath of the revolution, Iran called on Saudi citizens to rise up and overthrow the existing Saudi ruling family, "seize its oil wealth and strip it of its role as guardian of Islamic holy places."[12] The Saudis feared a successful uprising amongst their Shi‘a minority, who are primarily located in the oil-rich Eastern Province of the country. The Iranian model and subsequent encouragement by Tehran did cause some upheavals in Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Shi‘as did manage a limited revolt, the result was not a removal of the Saudi royal family from power, or a re-organization of the country's political structure. Rather, the minority Shi‘as saw a limited transfer of wealth and resources to the Eastern Province. While the actions of the Saudi government were limited, they worked to somewhat placate the Shi‘a population. Thus, the Iranian revolution was a source of unease for the Saudi ruling family and Iran's calls to overthrow the ruling Saudi family did not help matters.[13]

During the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia sided with Iraq out of fear of Iran, increasing the animosity between the two countries. This peaked in 1988, when Riyadh severed official diplomatic ties between the states. While they were eventually reinstated following the first Gulf War in 1991, the countries have been unable to maintain a close relationship. Further straining relations between the states, during the Hajj, Iran incited its pilgrims to riot, causing Saudi Arabia to threaten to refuse admittance of all Iranian pilgrims. For several years the numbers of pilgrims allowed to participate in the Hajj coming from Iran were strictly constrained and their activities monitored closely. In 1981, around 20 Iranian pilgrims were injured in a clash during the Hajj, further straining relations between the countries.

Relations seemed to take a turn for the better following the election of Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani who served as Iranian president from 1989-1997 and during the term of his successor, Mohammad Khatami. The gains made during this period were quickly lost when Mahmoud Ahmadenijad was elected president in 2005 on a conservative platform, succeeding two relatively moderate presidents.

Since the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005, Tehran's relations with Riyadh have continued to fluctuate. However, Iran continues the acceleration of its nuclear program and isolates itself from the international community. At a March 4, 2007 meeting between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, there was the potential for a positive turn in relations between the two, although "they stopped short of agreeing on any concrete plans to tackle the escalating sectarian and political crises throughout the Middle East,"[14] and the Saudi King reportedly told Ahmadinejad that Iran "should stop interfering in Arab affairs and should not underestimate the U.S. military threat."[15] Thus, there is a sense of unease in the current state of bilateral relations between the two countries, fueled by differences and suspicion over various dynamics in the region, such as Iran's nuclear program and the situation in Lebanon.

The Saudi Role in the Middle East

In Saudi Arabia's quest to secure a role as a regional leader in the Middle East, it has viewed Iran as an adversary and many of the Kingdom's policies have been rooted in its desire to counter Iranian influence. Two factors acting in Saudi Arabia's favor are extensive oil revenues and the fact that Saudi Arabia is an Arab, largely Sunni, state while Iran is Persian and Shi‘a. Saudi Arabia is relatively wealthy compared to Iran, especially as oil prices continue to rise. While Saudi Arabia is enjoying increased wealth and influence, Iran has seen its economy suffer. A prime example of Saudi Arabia's increasing influence is its recent move to work toward not only peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but first a stable Palestinian government that is viewed as legitimate in the eyes of the international community.

As Iran seeks to expand its influence and prestige in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has been forced into playing a more active role in working to resolve the region's many conflicts. One area in which this shift in policy is most noticeable is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In February of 2007, Mecca served as host to King Abdullah's attempt to construct a unity government between rival factions Hamas and Fatah. This was a bold move for the Kingdom, which in the past, has preferred to finance plans as opposed to taking such an obvious leadership role. King Abdullah recently lamented "the failure of Arab countries to unite," while alluding to Iran's efforts to exploit the inability of Arabs to solve their own problems saying, "We do not want any other party to manipulate our causes, profiteer from them, and draw strength from them, we do not want any other country to exploit our causes to bolster its position in its global conflicts."[16]

In another move to assert its leadership role in the region, Saudi Arabia played host to the Arab League summit. This was important for several reasons; this was the first time the Kingdom has hosted such an event; and at this meeting the Saudis reintroduced their peace plan, initially presented in 2002, and were successful in gaining acceptance from all Arab leaders.[17] This success is notable as it represents the Saudis' ability to present a proposal that was acceptable to the Arab states regarding the contentious Israeli-Palestinian issue. Included in the Saudi plan is peace with Israel, a return to the 1967 borders, and a full normalization of relations between Israel and its neighbors. For Israel some of the most contentious areas of the proposal are the right of return for the Palestinian refugees and relinquishing control of all of the Golan Heights.

At the 2007 summit, Saudi leaders showed further promise of being ready and willing to take on a more assertive role in the region. King Abdullah strayed from usual Arab rhetoric when speaking about the problems in the Middle East saying, "the blame should fall on us, we the leaders of the Arab nations. Our permanent differences, our refusal to take the path of unity- all of that led the nations to lose their confidence in our credibility and to lose hope in our present and future."[18]

A further indication of Saudi assertion has been a more active role in the conflict in Iraq, often to the chagrin of its ally, the United States. It must be noted that Saudi Arabia shares 500 miles of border with Iraq, and the United States does not. This is yet another arena where the Saudi leadership appears to feel that it either takes an active role in shaping this new Iraq or is forced to sit back and watch Iran play a central role in this new, emerging Iraq. Saudi Arabia is in a difficult position as it is forced to choose between watching the Iraqi Sunni population attacked by Shi‘a militias backed by Iran and choosing to support the Sunni militias, further fueling the conflict in Iraq. If Saudi Arabia chooses to back the Sunni militias it risks angering its minority Shi‘a population. According to the New York Times, King Abdullah warned Vice President Dick Cheney that Saudi Arabia might provide financial backing to Iraqi Sunnis in any war against Iraq's Shiites if the United States pulled its troops out of Iraq."[19]

Saudi Arabia has responded to Iran's nuclear intentions with support for peaceful and legal nuclear technology; however Saudi leaders are as fearful of a nuclear-armed Iran as the United States and other Western powers are. Saudi Arabia is in a difficult position with regards to the Iranian nuclear program. While they claim to be supportive of peaceful nuclear development, they are also fearful of Iran possessing sophisticated nuclear technology, as they are concerned their long time foe could use this technology against them. Of the Iranian nuclear program, Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said this: "We are urging Iran to accept the position that we have taken to make the Gulf, as part of the Middle East, nuclear free and free of weapons of mass destruction. We hope that they will join us in this policy and assure that no new threat of arms race happens in this region." Another Saudi fear is that the Iranian nuclear program could so anger the United States that they resort to a military intervention to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. If this were to happen, the consequences could be devastating not only for Saudi Arabia, but for the Middle East as a whole.

Saudi Arabia is finding itself in an increasingly difficult position with regards to its relationship with America. As America's popularity in the Middle East continues to plummet due to the war in Iraq among other issues, this "special" relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States has come under increasing scrutiny. In the past, Iran has successfully used this relationship to put the Saudis on the defensive and Saudi Arabia does not want that to be repeated.

Riyadh is thus in a difficult position between the U.S. and Iran. While it wants to ensure its place as a leader in the Middle East, it does not wish to intensify its adversarial relationship with Iran. On the other hand, the country is also working to ensure it stays just enough on the right side of the United States. It is therefore a delicate balancing act. The King of Saudi Arabia recently made comments regarding the United States' "illegal"[20] invasion of Iraq, and although the comments were sure to draw the ire of the United States, they were also intended to show its Arab audience that the Saudi government is not solely a pawn of the United States and is capable of acting in solidarity with the Arab world.

As the United States continues to push for further sanctions against Iran, Saudi Arabia has sufficient cause for concern. As Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi talk show host says "Iran is a neighbor and geography is more permanent than political stands."[21] Saudi Arabia has good reason to fear a military confrontation between Iran and the United States. If such a confrontation were to occur, the repercussions for the gulf states could be disastrous. Geographically, if an armed conflict were to break out, Saudi oil trade could be adversely affected, which in turn could have negative consequences for the country's economy. Furthermore, should armed conflict occur, Saudi Arabia could be pushed to take sides in a lose-lose situation. The Saudis also have legitimate fears of an accident involving nuclear or radioactive materials as Bushehr is closer to many of the capitals of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states than it is to Tehran.

Saudi Arms Purchases

As the United States provides the Saudi government with security assurances, the Saudis continue to purchase arms at an ever-increasing rate. According to the Financial Times, "Military expenditure in the Middle East in the decade to 2004 has increased by 40% compared with a world average of 23%" and the "leaders in the region were Israel and Saudi Arabia."[22] According to Al-Jazeera, Saudi Arabian defense spending topped out at $25.4 billion while Iranian defense spending totaled just $6.2 billion.[23]

Although these figures show a relative disparity between Iranian and Saudi Arabian defense spending, it is important to take into consideration what these increases in defense spending represent. Iranian defense spending represents 2.5% of the country's GDP (2006 figures) while Saudi Arabian defense spending represents 10% of the country's GDP (2005 figures). The above figures are especially telling when compared with the defense spending as percentage of GDP of China which stands at 4.3% (2006 figures) or the United States with 4.06% (2005 figures).[24]

The GCC, of which Saudi Arabia is a member, has "pumped a staggering $162 billion into defense and security, an increase of nearly $55 billion over the preceding four years."[25] Of this expenditure, Saudi Arabia has taken the lead with "2006 security allocations topping SAR100 billion ($27 billion) in for the first time in the Kingdom's history."[26] As defense spending continues to rise commensurate with budget increases and the price of oil shows no sign of dropping, we can expect to see Saudi defense expenditures continue to rise. As all the GCC states are along the coastline facing Iran, they feel especially vulnerable to the threat from Iran. For the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman, which share custodianship of the Straits of Hormuz, the potential implications of a conflict with Iran are of particular concern.

In 2005, Saudi Arabia moved to upgrade its 84 Panavia Tornado IDS fighter aircraft, which would allow for the self-designation of laser-guided weapons.[27] This upgrade will provide updates to the Saudis' targeting and enhance the precision of their guidance systems. The Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) will cooperate with BAE Systems to complete this project.

Then, in 2006 France agreed to sell Saudi Arabia helicopters, tanker aircraft, and anti-aircraft missiles in a deal worth approximately $3.125 billion. The contract will supply "10 NH90 medium transport helicopters and 30 AS/550/555 Fennec light utility helicopters built by Eurocopter along with two A330-200 Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft and logistic equipment."[28] The armament deals with France and the United Kingdom represent a move by the Saudis away from their long-standing arms dealer, the United States.

The IDEX Arms Fair, held every other year in Dubai, is usually the site of considerable defense spending by Saudi Arabia. This year did not disappoint, with the country creating a "shopping list that runs to almost $50 billion, including fighter aircraft, cruise missiles, attack helicopters and more than 300 new tanks."[29] Saudi Arabia signed a contract with Data Link Solutions to purchase Link 16 Multifunctional Information Distribution Systems (MIDS) gear for its F-15 fighter jets. The MIDS gear will be used to enhance navigation and communication between aircraft.[30] Boeing was awarded a $49.2 million contract to upgrade Saudi Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft using the same Link 16 MIDS gear.

The arms build-up in the Middle East has been furthered by the United States, which, concerned over a nuclear-armed Iran, has offered arms packages not only to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, but has also agreed to increase Israel's aid package. Israel will receive more than a 25% increase in military aid in order to help the state maintain its qualitative edge over its neighbors.[31] Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said this of the U.S.-Saudi defense package: "We understand the U.S.' need to assist the moderate Arab states, which are standing in one front with the United States and us in the struggle against Iran."[32] Olmert's comments regarding the struggle against Iran were made in reference to the country's nuclear program. Included in the proposed arms package are "advanced weaponry, missile guidance systems, upgraded fighter jets and naval ships."[33] The arms package is purported to include the sale of satellite- guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, the first of such a sale to an Arab country.[34]

While this arms sale is seen by many as an attempt by the United States to contain the growing influence and threat posed by Iran, not all are happy with the proposal. German officials have voiced sharp criticism of the deal, with the chairman of the German Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Ruprecht Polenz, saying: "If one puts yet more explosive material into a powder keg – and that is what the Middle East is – one heightens the risk and makes the region less safe in the end."[35] The Germans expressed further skepticism that the most effective way to promote democracy in the Middle East was by arming Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two less than staunch supporters of American values such as democracy and human rights. A further German concern was the stability of the regimes receiving this advanced weaponry. Their fear being that this weaponry could eventually land in the hands of terrorist organizations or other unsavory entities. Germans officials have questioned the general sense of sending further arms into a region already embroiled in crisis and conflict.[36]

Echoing sentiments voiced by the Germans, on July 31, 2007, Syria's foreign minister said the arms deals were "dangerous."[37] Washington, however, followed its announcement with one outlining its plans for a peace conference to be held in the Middle East sometime in the next year. Mahmoud Zahhar, a senior Hamas figure, said U.S. peace conference plans were a waste of time."[38]

Many view the U.S. defense package as an attempt to buy Saudi cooperation in Iraq as the country has been accused of funding and arming Sunni militias in the country. The package is also viewed as an attempt by the United States to work to counter the influence of Iran and to allay the concern that the Iranian nuclear program has generated in the region. The countries slated to receive arms as part of the proposed package are considered key U.S. allies in the region who will hopefully serve as sources of support for the United States in the region.

Saudi defense purchases received a further boost with the September 2007 deal with the United Kingdom for the purchase of 72 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft. The Eurofighter Typhoon is a tactical fighter with air to ground capabilities and precision-guided weapons capabilities.[39] This deal is notable for several reasons. First, that the deal has the potential value of greater than $60 billion over the next 25 years.[40] Second, the degree of technology transfer that is included as this agreement "involves the establishment of a Typhoon assembly line in Saudi Arabia and an unprecedented degree of technology transfer to a Middle Eastern country."[41] This deal carries with it the opportunity for Saudi Arabia to develop infrastructure necessary to support further economic development and establish an aviation industry.[42] The deal is expected to create around 15,000 jobs in Saudi Arabia, serving as a doubly positive impetus for the Saudi government to finalize the deal.[43]

Subsequently, in October of 2007, Saudi Arabia requested the sale of $631 million worth of armaments from the United States. Included in this request are: "121 light armored vehicles (LAVs); three LAV recovery vehicles; 50 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV); 124 M240 7.62 mm machine guns; and 525 AN/PVS-7D night-vision goggles."[44]

But despite these major defense purchases, as tensions over Iran's nuclear program continue to escalate, Saudi Arabia is left in a precarious position. Anti-American sentiment is on the rise in the Middle East, the Saudi royal family cannot be seen as pandering to the wishes of the United States, and at the same time risks irritating the United States to its own detriment.

A Saudi fear is that if the United States and Iran turn to armed conflict over Iran's nuclear program, the Iranians will do as they have promised; they will begin to attack U.S. interests in the area. To Saudi Arabia this spells nothing but trouble. If Iran were to attack vital U.S. interests in the area, Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be dragged into the fray. Saudi Arabia not only fears being forced into conflict in this manner with Iran, the country also harbors fears of an independent conflict with its neighbor. Regarding this Saudi fear, F. Gregory Gause told the United States' House Committee on Foreign Affairs on September 18, 2007 that a motivation for recent Saudi arms purchases is "the Saudi perception of the threats facing it in its regional environment, specifically the growth of Iranian power in recent years."[45]

Saudi Nuclear Plans

Saudi Arabia recently announced its plans, as a member of the GCC, to pursue peaceful nuclear technology. In December of 2007, the GCC, which is comprised of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain, announced their intent to commence a joint program to develop nuclear energy. The communiqué issued following their meeting also proposed making "the Middle East a mass destruction weapons free region, including the gulf region, recognizing the right of any country in possessing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."[46] The leaders of the GCC have taken steps to assuage any concerns of the international community by meeting with the IAEA to ensure that their activities are seen as peaceful and within the scope of international law. The extent to which the GCC has gone to minimize fear and suspicion regarding their nuclear intentions indicates that they have learned from the example of Iran and do not want their nuclear ambitions to be viewed in the same vein.

With Saudi defense spending "topping $27 billion in 2006, the highest in history,"[47i] the concern that the Gulf States are turning to nuclear weapons as an answer to security concerns is a possibility that is on the minds of analysts and policymakers. Also of importance is the purchasing power of the members of the GCC. Unlike Egypt, which is battling rumors that its nuclear ambitions will have to be put on hold due to financing difficulties, the Gulf monarchies "earned $500 billion in oil revenue in 2006 alone, and could easily finance such an expensive undertaking"[48] according to a recent report by Jane's Defense Weekly. GCC Secretary General, Abdul Rahman Al Attiyah, says: "This is not a secret and we are doing this out in the open. Our aim is to obtain the technology for peaceful purposes, no more no less. We want no bombs."[49] The GCC has yet to announce how it will obtain nuclear fuel.

The Saudis, along with their fellow GCC members recently announced a plan to create a body that would provide enriched uranium to the states of the Middle East. Although the deal was announced as a plan for the entire region, it was clear that the announcement was aimed at Iran with King Abdullah reportedly saying that the proposal was developed to "stave off a nuclear arms race in the Gulf."[50] While very few details have been released, the deal seems very similar to a Russian plan to provide Iran with the same service with King Abdullah adding: "We have proposed a solution, which is to create a consortium for all users of enriched uranium in the Middle East. We will do it in a collective manner through a consortium that will distribute according to needs, give each plant its own necessary amount, and ensure no use of this enriched uranium for atomic weapons."[51] Iran's reaction to this proposal remains to be seen.


As Iran continues down the path toward proliferation, several other countries in the region are following suit. Iran's moves toward nuclear technology, whether peaceful or not, persuades other countries to consider nuclear energy as not only more attractive, but also as a necessary step to keep pace in a notoriously unstable region.

An additional fear as Iran moves toward nuclear energy independence is that its new-found nuclear status will not be viewed as a technological triumph for Muslims, but as advancement by the Shi‘as that must be followed by a similar Sunni achievement. Although Iran is attempting to convince the greater Mideast that the development of the country into a nuclear state will benefit all Muslim states, not just a Shi‘a-dominated country, there is a strong possibility that this will not work. And if this belief does not take root in Sunni-dominated states, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, then their populations might favor development of nuclear weapons/energy in their own countries as a response to Iran's progress in this field.

If other states in the Middle East that have claimed an interest in nuclear energy follow through with their proposed plans, the potential for increased instability in the region could have a detrimental effect on the price of oil in the region, something to which both Saudi Arabia and Iran are understandably opposed. For the Saudis however, instability affecting the Kingdom's main source of revenue would also disrupt its efforts to influence events in the region via the Saudi's preferred method of "pocketbook diplomacy." Any sort of nuclear race in the region will carry with it disruption and instability, both unwelcome prospects for the leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In spite of this, if Saudi Arabia continues to increase its armaments at its current rate and it's Gulf neighbors continue to feel threatened by Iran's nuclear program, they will likely see little alternative but to pursue some form of nuclear program combined with expanding their conventional arsenals. Any combination of the above could have disastrous consequences for the Middle East and beyond.

It must also be noted that several Middle East states currently clamoring for nuclear energy have very little need for additional energy sources, but do have a need for a feeling of security regarding Iran.[52] In spite of their lack of need for nuclear energy, these states are apparently willing to expend the resources necessary to build what they feel would serve as an adequate deterrent against a nuclear-armed Iran. This threat perception combined with the ability of the Gulf States to finance such a deterrent would probably be taken very seriously by the international community in the coming years. Saudi Arabia's ongoing reactions to Iran as well as interactions between the two countries will continue to be monitored closely by their neighbors for signs of increasing trouble.

On March 3, 2008, the United Nations Security Council took their sanctions against Iran one step further by passing a resolution for additional sanctions against Iran by a vote of 14-0, with Indonesia abstaining. Although the latest sanctions package is admittedly weaker than many Western states were aiming for, this softened language was necessary to garner maximum support in the council. In spite of the vote, many states questioned the worth of adding additional sanctions against Iran when the current ones have been unsuccessful at convincing Iran to stop uranium enrichment. In response to the latest round of sanctions, Mohammad Khazaee, Iranian envoy to the UN, referred to the sanctions as an "unjust and irrational decision on Iran's peaceful nuclear programme," adding that "There has never been, nor will there ever be, guarantees that our needs for fuel will be completely provided by foreign sources."[53]

In spite of these latest sanctions, the March 3, 2008 visit by Iranian President Ahmadinejad to Iraq, the first visit by a President of Iran to Iraq, shows that the country is working to strengthen relationships with its neighbors in the Middle East and improve its image. It remains to be seen how these efforts will be viewed by Saudi Arabia. In spite of these recent sanctions, it is crucial that the international community pays attention to the arms purchases of Saudi Arabia and the nuclear intentions of the state's neighbors. Until some sort of solution is reached regarding Iran's nuclear program, the Middle East remains at risk from its potentially dangerous nuclear expansion plans.


[1] Markets Data Center, Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2008.
[2] "Huge Gulf Spending at Arms Fair," Al Jazeera, February 18, 2007.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Lionel Beehner, "Iran's Saudi Counterweight." The Council on Foreign Relations, March 16, 2007.
[5] "The World Fact Book," Central Intelligence Agency, September 20, 2007.
[6] "Hamas Secures More Iranian Funding," Aljazeera, March 6, 2007.
[7] "Iran offers Hamas Financial Aid," BBC, February 22, 2006.
[8] Joel Brinkley, Saudis Reject U.S. Request to Cut Off Aid to Hamas," New York Times, February 23, 2006.
[9] Benjamin Radford and Leonard Spector, "Summary of Recent United Nations Security Council, European Union, and United States Sanctions Against Iran", WMD Insights, April 2008.
[10] "Security Council Demands Iran Suspend Uranium Enrichement by August 31st or Face Possible Economic, Diplomatic Sanctions," UN Department of Public Information, July 31, 2006.
[11] Henner Furtig, Iran's Rivalry with Saudi Arabia Between the Gulf Wars, (Garnet
Publishing Limited, London, 2002), p. 7.
[12] Donna abu-Nasr, "Saudi Arabia quietly works to curb Iran's influence in the region," International Herald Tribune (December 3, 2006).
[13] Donna abu-Nasr, "U.S.-Iran Standoff Stresses Saudi Arabia," Associated Press, September 15, 2006.
[14] Hassan M. Fattah, "Saudi- Iran Meeting Yields Little Substance," New York Times, Section A,
Column 4, p. 6. March 5, 2007.
[15] Christian Koch, "Kingdom Come- Saudi Arabia asserts its position as regional actor," Jane's Intelligence Review, July 19, 2007.
[16] Michael Slackman, Hassan M. Fatah, Mona el Naggar and Helene Cooper, "In Public View,
Saudi's counter Iran in Region," New York Times, Section A, Column 3,
p. 1, February 6, 2007.
[17] Christian Koch, "Kingdom Come- Saudi Arabia asserts its position as regional actor," Jane's Intelligence Review, July 19, 2007.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Helene Cooper, "Saudis' Role in Iraq Frustrates U.S. Officials," New York Times, July 27, 2007.
[20] Ibid.
[21] abu-Nasr, "U.S.-Iran Standoff Stresses Saudi Arabia."
[22] "Iran Stirs a New Mid-East Dynamic," Canberra Times, 30 September 2006.
[23] "Huge Gulf Spending at Arms Fair," Al Jazeera, February 18, 2007,
[24] "The World Fact Book," Central Intelligence Agency, September 20, 2007.
[25] Tom Ripley, "Gulf Countries Splash Cash on Defense," Jane's Defense Weekly, September 18, 2007.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Tom Ripley, "Saudi Tornado Upgrade Points to Smart Weapons Purchases," Jane's Defense Weekly, 14 September 2006.
[28] Jac Lewis, "France, Saudi Arabia on Verge of Closing Major Arms Deal," Jane's Defense Weekly, September 13, 2006.
[29] Gethin Chamberlain, "Gulf States Load up on Weapons of War," The Daily Telegraph, February 11, 2007.
[30] "Saudi Arabia to Get Link 16 From Data Link Solutions," Defense News, February 20, 2007.
[31] Matthew Lee, "US Says Huge Bump in Arab Military Sales will Boost Iraq, Gulf Security," Associated Press, July 30, 2007.
[32] Mohammed Mar'i and Hisham Abu Taha," Israel to Get $30bn US Defense Aid," Arab News, July 30, 2007.
[33] "US 'plans huge Saudi arms deal,'" BBC, July 28, 2007.
[34] "US 'aims to help' Mid-East allies," BBC, July 31, 2007.
[35] Saeid Najar Nobari, "German politicians lash out at planned US arms sales to Mideast," Islamic Republic News Agency, July 31, 2007.
[36] Ibid.
[37] "US 'aims to help' Mid-East allies," BBC, (July 31, 2007).
[38] Ibid.
[39] "Saudi Arabia Agrees Major Typhoon Deal with UK," Jane's Defense Industry, (September 17, 2007).
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Ibid.
[44] Donald McFarlane, "Saudi Arabia Requests Purchase of US Arms and Support," Jane's Defense Industry, October 5, 2007.
[45] F. Gregory Gause, III, " Saudi Arabia and the Proposed Arms Sale," Testimony before House Committee on Foreign Affairs, September 18, 2007.
[46] Gulf Foreign Ministers Meet in Saudi Arabia, Issue Final Communique," March 6, 2007.
[47] Fears of Nuclear Iran Sparks Saudi Action," Jane's Defense Weekly, March 29, 2007.
[48] Ibid.
[49] "Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Expert Group Report submitted to the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency," IAEA Information Circular, February 22, 2005.
[50] "Gulf States ‘offer Iran uranium'," BBC World News, November 1, 2007.
[51] Ibid.
[52] Lionel Beehner, "Arab Views of a Nuclear Iran," Council on Foreign Relations, April 20, 2006.
[53] Harvey Morris and James Blitz, "UN agrees new sanctions against Iran," The Financial Times, March 3, 2008.

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Eric Brewer on the War in Ukraine and Nonproliferation
nuclear symbol with no symbol circle with line through it


Eric Brewer on the War in Ukraine and Nonproliferation

Deputy Vice President for NTI’s Nuclear Materials Security Program Eric Brewer writes that “although Russia’s war [in Ukraine] has created nuclear risks, the risk that it will unleash a wave of nuclear proliferation is lower than many believe.”


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