One of the possible consequences of the US nuclear deal with Iran will be for Saudi Arabia to start to develop its own nuclear capability. The deal with Iran, if adhered to does not stop Iran from eventually developing nuclear weapons merely pauses that development. During this period it gives the Saudis time, if they choose to begin a program of their own.
The fact that the United States foreign policy has pivoted to Asia and Iran has disquieted the Saudis who no longer feel that they can rely on the United States as a strategic ally.
At a two day seminar at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (the BESA Center),Yoel Guzansky, a former Israeli official at the National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office and a research fellow at the INSS stated that Saudi Arabia will take this period to put together a nuclear program on a par with Iran’s.
They have a decade to work on it without breaching the existing non-proliferation agreement.
Guzansky stated, “the nuclear deal may set a worrisome standard in the region and a cascade of threshold nuclear states. The Saudis are panicking…and preparing contingency plans.” He described it as a “slow motion arms race.”
Although the Saudis themselves may not have scientists that have the capability of developing a bomb on their own, it would be reasonable to assume that they can buy in the technology from Pakistan. Strategically, it also makes sense for Pakistan to wish to create a further counter weight to a nuclear armed Iran. Unfortunately everyone to the east of Iran would suffer from fallout in the event of a nuclear exchange as the prevailing winds in the region blow from west to east across the Indian sub-continent.
The then Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdel Aziz visited Pakistan in February 2014 to discuss military co-operation. It is highly likely that this included the possibility of purchasing nuclear weapons off the shelf.
There is of course the issue of cost. Even for Saudi Arabia, the present low oil price is putting a strain on the Kingdom’s resources. However, that does not mean that other states in the region may contribute to this process and share technology. At the present time the South Koreans are building a nuclear plant in the United Arab Emirates
That the current administration has put one of our oldest allies in the region in this position is incredible. Despite the fact that the rulers of Saudi Arabia do not conform to liberal Western democratic ideals, in the snake pit that is the Middle East, they are a much better alternative than the theocratic thugs of the sunni regime of the Islamic State or the theocratic shi’i gangsters that rule in Tehran.
Currently Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and the Yemen. This fight is not just about regional power but it is also about control of Islam. This goes back to the Iranian revolution and the Ayatollah Khomeini described the Saudi regime as “vile and ungodly Wahabbis”. He further stated that the Al Saud were a “band of heretics”.
The current Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei has made it clear that he endorses these views and that the Islamic Republic of Iran supports the concept of intervention in any Islamic lands against anyone who seeks to assert control there. He has made it clear that he believes that jihad against tyrannical regimes is necessary and this includes the Saudis.
The roots of this conflict are rooted in the earliest days of Islam. The Iranian leadership also believes that the Saudis destroyed the shrine of the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, Fatima in Medina. This is seen as a particular affront as Fatima is the matriarchal ancestress of the entire line of the twelve Shi’a Imams. The Iranians also believe that the Saudis, in their engagement in the conflict in Syria are seeking to destroy the shrine of Zeinab, another of the Prophet’s daughters who is buried outside of Damascus.
That Iran’s regional expansion of power affects Saudi Arabia more than any other state should not be in question. In fact during Congressional hearings in January, Frederic Hof, a former adviser to then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton testified that Iran now considers Saudi Arabia to be a bigger enemy than either Israel or the United States.
Unfortunately for the world there is no way to create stability in the region from within and it must be imposed from without. However, with the recent lack of engagement and leadership emanating from Washington this is a faint hope and the spread of nuclear weapons in the region augurs a potential disaster in the making.