ASIAMIDDLE EASTOPINIONPOLITICS

Saudis’ nuclear call

By Debalina Ghoshal

Earlier this month, reports came in that Saudi Arabia has held talks with Pakistan to purchase nuclear weapons. Such news have been in the air for a while now since 2013 when reports came in that Saudi Arabia could buy nuclear weapons from Pakistan should need arise. The reason for this agreement is that Saudi Arabia is believed to have funded the Pakistani nuclear weapons program in return to avail of the same technology should need arise. Also, the Saudis have supplied subsidised oil to Pakistan in return for the same. Saudi Arabia is party to the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while Pakistan is not.

There is little doubt that Saudis desired to acquire nuclear weapons as a counter to Iranian nuclear deal. An oil rich country like Saudi Arabia which is also rich in cash has little difficulty in paying for nuclear weapons should it desire to acquire the same from foreign countries. The Saudis have had minimal faith in the nuclear negotiation process concerning Iran. Riyadh has been discontended with US policy in dealing with the Iranian nuclear impasse and demanded that there should be complete halt on the nuclear program. There is a trust deficit between Riyadh and Tehran concerning Iran’s claim that the nuclear program is meant for peaceful purpose and does not have any ‘possible military dimension’ (PMD). Apart from the Iranian nuclear threat, Israel’s nuclear bombs in basement are also threat for Riyadh. Even though at present, following the Iranian nuclear impasse, Saudi-Israeli ties have improved, the existential threat to Saudi Arabia from Israel’s virtual nuclear weapons remain. However, Saudis are already believed to be under the nuclear umbrella of the United States, a strategy that does not jeopardise Riyadh’s commitment to the NPT.

Saudi Arabia already possesses ballistic missiles like the DF-21s acquired from China. Riyadh also possesses the DF-11 and the DF-3A, but the DF-21s stregnthen Saudi’s Arabia’s deterrent capability, due to their solid propulsion system, greater accuracy and mobility which enhances their options for survivability. Even though the missiles are incapable of carrying nuclear warheads and are modified to carry conventional warheads, Saudis could take assistance from Pakistan or China to convert these ballistic missiles to carry nuclear warheads or modify them indigenously, especially the DF-3s which do not have a high accuracy and hence, are not the best medium to delivery conventional warheads.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear weapon status would have adverse repercussion on the peace and stability of Middle East. Countries like Turkey (though Turkey already hosts the US tactical nuclear weapon B-61), Egypt and Jordan which already run civil nuclear program could also follow suit. Moreover, this move could hinder any progress of the Iranian nuclear deal. On a broader framework, the move could jeopardise efforts to secure Middle East as a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ).

There are also added hazzards to this. These weapons in Saudi Arabia are susceptible to falling into the hands of terrorist organisations since Saudi Arabia funds several Sunni Wahabi extremist organisations.

That said, the bigger question however, is, if Islamabad would provide nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia. With an increase in the fissile material stockpile in Pakistan, it may be concluded that this increase in fissile material stockpile is not just to cater to Pakistan’s threat perceptions, but probably, also to cater to Saudi Arabia’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons.

However, there are geopolitical and geo-strategic issues which could defy the belief . There is a faint chance that Pakistan may not be willing to provide Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons. It has already been observed during the Yemen crisis as to how Islamabad maintained its distance from the crisis and refused to send any military help to Saudi Arabia for attacking the Shia Houthis in Yemen, and instead Pakistan preferred to act as a mediator.  One of the major reasons for doing so is the fear of antagonising the Iranians, with whom Islamabad probably views scope of strengthening relations especially as the two share borders.

Moreover, a major concern would also be the international pressure on Pakistan. Pakistan’s decision whether to send nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia would invite criticism for Pakistan and there could be a possibility that the West could also impose sanctions on Pakistan. These are factors which Islamabad surely will and is taking into consideration before any decision is being taken. Islamabad is desperately making an effort to fit into the criteria-based Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver just as India has been given the NSG waiver. Therefore, any effort on Pakistan’s side to jeopardise non-proliferation efforts could thin Islamabad’s chances of acheving such waivers from the NSG.

Earlier in April, during the Yemen crisis,there was already debates in Pakistan’s parliament to not become a part of the Iran-Saudi regional rivalry. This unwillingness of becoming a part of the regional rivalry could also likely exist in the matters pertaining to providing nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Any effort on Pakistan’s part to provide nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia would jeopardise its relations with Iran and at present, it would be in Pakistan’s interest to maitain cordial relations with both the states than with just one.

Both also hold different views on Iran’s nuclear program. While Saudi believe Tehran’s nuclear program should be curbed, Pakistan believes that Iran has the right to pursue nuclear program as a member of the NPT. While Saudis have been apprehensive of any sanctions lifted from Iran, Pakistan has been non supportive of any sanctions imposed on Iran and has time and again demanded that the nuclear impasse be solved peacefully.

Thus, the possibility of Pakistan providing nuclear weapons to Riyadh remains low. However, it must be noted that should the Americans raise no issue over this, considering that Saudi Arabia is a good friend, a Pakistani bomb could then become a possibility. At the same time, given the deterioration in trust factor between the US and the Saudis regarding not just the Iranian nuclear impasse, but also the US policies with Syria, with Egypt and Tunisia, there is lesser likelihood of Saudi depending on the US nuclear umbrella for long.

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Debalina Ghoshal

Debalina Ghoshal is a Research Associate at Delhi Policy Group

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