Is a regional arms race closer than we think?
Fearful that he will soon face a nuclear-armed Iran, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal recently warned that the Saudi Kingdom would have no choice but to develop its own nuclear weapons, a move he said would lead to “untold and possibly dramatic consequences.”
While the Saudi’s have long voiced the strategic goal of a nuclear-free Middle East, they have also unequivocally stated that they won’t sit back and allow themselves to be the only nonnuclear nation in the region.
So, the remarks by al-Faisal -- a former Saudi intelligence official -- simply echo that view, one espoused by Saudi King Abdullah in 2006 when he said that if Iran ever developed nuclear weapons, “everyone in the region would, including Saudi Arabia.”
However, with Iran now edging ever closer to acquiring its own nuclear weapons, it appears the Saudis have actually begun laying the groundwork for a similar pursuit. For example, in April 2011, the Saudis purchased from China advanced ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. One of the missiles, the DF-21, can carry a 500kT nuclear warhead over 1,800 kilometers.
Moreover, in June 2011, the Saudi government announced a $300 billion plan to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next 20 years. While the Saudis have long been looking to develop a civilian nuclear program to meet its increasing electricity demands -- having recently signed nuclear cooperation agreements with both France and China -- the acquisition of nuclear power plants is the first crucial step in the development of a nuclear weapons program.
Skeptics of the Saudi nuclear threat, however, point to the fact that these nuclear agreements only allow for the transfer of knowledge regarding the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Moreover, they also note that the Saudis are a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, although so is Iran, and that factoid hasn’t slowed down the Islamist state’s nuclear weapons pursuit.
Still, it should be noted that even if the Saudis are seriously intent on pursuing a nuclear weapons course, a myriad of obstacles abound. For starters, the Saudis have the money to build a nuclear weapons system, but they presently lack the technological capacity, in particular an absence of highly skilled technicians, engineers and scientists. As such, the final development of a nuclear weapon could take one to two decades.
Unfortunately for the Saudis, time is a scarce commodity. According to British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Iran is already testing missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads, as well as tripling its capacity to produce enriched uranium.
Confirmation of Hague’s latter accusation came when the Iranians recently announced they were shifting their nuclear enrichment program to an underground bunker at their Fordo plant near the Holy City of Qom, a move that experts believe will seriously accelerate Iran’s final push to make a nuclear bomb.
So, in order to quickly bridge the nuclear gap with Iran, the Saudis may be motivated to purchase or even rent a nuclear device or two from a willing seller. One likely broker is Pakistan, Saudi Arabia’s Sunni ally.
The Pakistanis have been increasing their annual production of nuclear weapons in recent years. While the United States in 2009 estimated Pakistan to have 60 nuclear weapons, that figure is now believed to be closer to 100. Given both Pakistan’s need for money and its disgraceful record of dealing nuclear technology, fears abound that it will sell its nuclear surplus to another country.
To that end, a recent report surfaced that Saudi Arabia -- long suspected of contributing to Pakistan’s nuclear program -- has already arranged for the use of two Pakistani nuclear bombs or guided missile warheads.
However, given Pakistan’s recent dalliance with the Islamist Republic, the Pakistanis may prove to be less of a reliable option for the Saudis. Despite last minute appeals from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, has twice in the last month made visits to Tehran to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In both instances, Zardari has praised Iran as both a “natural ally” and “important friend” of Pakistan in the region.
While Pakistan and Iran’s budding romance may never come to full fruition, the courtship nevertheless reinforces the Saudi view of its strategic vulnerability to the Islamist state. So, while the Saudis grapple with the problematic issues of going the nuclear route, they continue on with an unabated buildup of conventional forces.
To that end, the Saudis have entered into a $60 billion arms deal with the United States, one which calls for the Saudi purchase of 84 US-built F-15 combat aircraft and an upgrade of 70 existing Saudi F-15s. The arms deal is also said to include an upgrade of the Saudi Patriot short-range missile defense in favor of a system to defend against higher-flying, medium-range ballistic missiles.
In addition to the arms deal, reports have recently surfaced that the US has been secretly training and equipping an elite Saudi Arabian force of 35,000 troops to provide security for Saudi energy production facilities, desalinization pants and nuclear reactors. The newly developed force is separate from the Saudi military, as well as the Saudi Arabian National Guard.
The creation and deployment of this new security force seems a particularly good investment given the fact that in March 2011 Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared a holy war against the Saudis for their intervention in the Bahrain unrest. To that end, Iranian leaders have openly created centers to recruit volunteers for suicide bombings against Saudi interests worldwide, with reports of hundreds having been already registered.
Yet despite the military buildup and the technological sophistication of their weaponry, the Saudis know they can’t overcome 75 million Iranians -- more people than the Saudis and its Persian Gulf state partners combined -- in a long, sustained conventional war
So, while some may dismiss Saudi Arabia’s nuclear threat as nothing more than a strategic bluff, the reality looks to be far different. For the Saudis, the road to victory over their Persian enemy has now taken a nuclear turn.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.