Saudi Arabia Considers Nuclear Weapons to Offset Iran
As a deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program nears, Iran’s regional rivals feel vulnerable
The pending deal between Iran and world powers on Tehran’s nuclear program and other security issues topped the agenda of a summit of Gulf leaders in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Tuesday, at which French President François Hollande was a guest of honor. To his left is King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Photo: European Pressphoto Agency
RIYADH—The nuclear deal that the U.S. and other world powers hope to reach with Iran would put a 10-year curb on the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. For some of Iran’s regional rivals, that is also becoming a deadline for developing nuclear arms of their own.
In Saudi Arabia, there are widespread public calls to match Iran’s nuclear quest. The two other Middle East heavyweights, Turkey and Egypt, could also feel compelled to follow suit, senior Western and Arab officials warn.
Such an arms race would further destabilize what is already the world’s most volatile region, where the risks of a nuclear war would be compounded by the threat of radioactive material falling into the hands of terrorist groups.
While Saudi Arabia has long advocated a nuclear-free Middle East, its leaders are doubtful that the completed accord on limiting Tehran’s nuclear program will stop Iran from becoming a threshold nuclear-weapons power when proposed restrictions on is number of centrifuges and uranium stockpiles expire in 10 years. They also aren’t willing to bet that the regime in Tehran will somehow become more moderate and responsible by then, a hope entertained by many in the West.
“We prefer a region without nuclear weapons. But if Iran does it, nothing can prevent us from doing it too, not even the international community,” said Abdullah al Askar, a member and former chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Saudi Arabia’s advisory legislature.
“Our leaders will never allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon while we don’t,” added Ibrahim al-Marie, a retired Saudi colonel and a security analyst in Riyadh. “If Iran declares a nuclear weapon, we can’t afford to wait 30 years more for our own—we should be able to declare ours within a week.”
Part of the reason for this sense of urgency is that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies are increasingly battling mainly Shiite Iran in proxy conflicts across the region, from Syria to Yemen.
Besides their fears of a nuclear Iran dominating the Middle East one day, they are fretting that the agreement would dramatically tilt the regional balance of power in Tehran’s favor already in the immediate future, especially once the removal of international sanctions revitalizes the Iranian economy and gives it access to more than $100 billion in frozen overseas assets. They also increasingly distrust the U.S., the traditional guarantor of Gulf security.
“Our allies aren’t listening to us, and this is what is making us extremely nervous,” said Prince Faisal bin Saud bin Abdulmohsen, a scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in the Saudi capital.
“If I am basing my judgment on the track record and our experience with Iran, I will say they will do anything in their power to get a nuclear weapon. A delay of 10 years is not going to satiate anything,” Prince Faisal said.
“Should Iran gain the ability to produce weapons-grade uranium and ability to deploy such weapons,” developing a Saudi capability in response “would be considered as part of our homeland security,” he added. Iran claims it doesn’t seek nuclear weapons.
The Obama administration has long argued that the nuclear deal would make it unnecessary for countries like Saudi Arabia to embark on their own nuclear programs. U.S. officials also say that the alternative to this agreement is either war, with unpredictable consequences for the region, or an even faster development of an Iranian nuclear bomb accompanied by a likely collapse of the international sanctions regime.
Among other worlds powers currently in talks with Iran, Russia has always been more sympathetic to Tehran, while France shares many of Saudi Arabia’s concerns, one reason that President François Hollande was the guest of honor at a summit of Gulf leaders in Riyadh this week.
The kingdom’s former intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al Faisal, set off the current nuclear debate by declaring in March that whatever Iran gets in Geneva, “we will want the same.”
King Salman returned to this issue in a speech at this week’s Riyadh summit, warning that a nuclear deal without adequate safeguards—something the Saudis feel is the case with the current draft agreement—risks “plunging the region into an arms race.”
The Saudi king and other Gulf monarchs are slated to discuss these concerns and their request for more robust U.S. security guarantees against Iran at a meeting with President Barack Obama at Camp David next week. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Riyadh on Wednesday and Thursday for talks with Saudi and other Gulf officials, part of the U.S. push to reach out to Riyadh on the issue.
The possibility that the nuclear agreement with Iran could set off a nuclear race in the region has long been a serious U.S. concern, said R. Nicholas Burns, who led U.S. negotiations on the nuclear program with Iran and served as the highest-ranking career diplomat at the State Department before retiring in 2008.
“It depends on the quality of any negotiated agreement with Iran—will it be airtight and will the Arab counties and Turkey have confidence in whether it will effectively stop Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power?” said Mr. Burns, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
“If they have confidence that the next American president is going to be very tough-minded and will make sure that this deal is implemented, this will diminish the probability that any of them becomes a nuclear weapons power.”
Saudi officials have long believed they have the semblance of a nuclear umbrella provided by Pakistan, a fellow Sunni nation whose own nuclear weapons program was launched decades ago with generous Saudi help. Pakistan, however, stung Saudi decision makers by proclaiming last month its neutrality in Saudi Arabia’s war against pro-Iranian Houthi militias in Yemen, giving calls for an independent nuclear capability fresh gravity.
Saudi Arabia has already launched a civilian nuclear program, signing agreements this year on technology sharing and training with South Korea and France. Unlike the United Arab Emirates, which embraced so-called gold standard terms under which it agreed not to enrich uranium on its soil, Saudi Arabia has resisted U.S. pressure to do so and is leaving its enrichment option open. In addition to Pakistan, the only regional country with an existing nuclear arsenal is believed to be Israel, which refuses either to confirm or deny its nuclear status.
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