It was reported on November 8th that Saudi Arabia was ready to obtain nuclear weapons from Pakistan (one version of the story suggested that the weapons had already been sold.) The Pakistani Foreign Ministry strongly denied the story and insisted that Pakistan was a responsible nuclear weapons state. At which point, I confess, I sneered rudely in disbelief.
The Pakistani nuclear program has a fair claim to being the single greatest source of nuclear technology to rogue states than anyone else. AQ Khan, known as the father of the Pakistani Nuke (and a great popular hero in Pakistan) was directly responsible for selling nuclear technology to such enlightened states as Libya, Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the program has been long documented. Saudi money helped underwrite the nuke program and the Saudis didn’t join the rush to sanction Pakistan after the first nuclear test, suggesting that they had some involvement in the program itself. The quest for an ‘Islamic Bomb’ almost certainly overrode any desire to support the somewhat hypocritical Western desire to penalise Pakistan for developing nukes.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is well known to have purchased a number of missiles from the Chinese. This missiles are deemed inaccurate, but when nukes are involved inaccuracy tends to decline in importance. The Pakistanis could certainly provide the expertise to mount nukes on those missiles – or simply supply the missiles along with the warheads.
There is no question that the Pakistani nuclear arsenal represents a major threat to the West. Pakistan almost collapsed into chaos more than once as the shockwaves from the Afghanistan War washed over Pakistan. If the country, which is increasingly anti-American and anti-West, falls under an Taliban-style regime, we must consider the prospects of the nukes being transferred to terrorist groups. Indeed, to some extent, the new government would be the terrorists.
But such a regime is not required to transfer nuclear weapons. The Saudis could argue, quite reasonably, that they paid for the damn things. And, with the US starting to slip into another pattern of ignoring Pakistan, the Pakistanis are likely to start feeling abandoned again. Obama would have to make creditable threats against both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to prevent the transfer, if both powers determined to do it. The problem with that is that Obama has made so many threats, and then balked at actually carrying them out that the Pakistanis would be fully justified in ignoring them.
So … is this actually serious? There are certainly good reasons for the Saudis to want nukes. Despite lavishing vast sums of money on their military, there are strong question marks over both its loyalty and competence – and Iran has good reasons to want to threaten Saudi into submission. (Among other things, the Iranians charge (rightly) that Saudi Arabia is a poor guardian of Mecca and Medina.) And, while Saudi Arabia has historically been able to call on the United States, as happened after Saddam invaded Kuwait, they would have good reason to doubt the US’s willingness to protect Saudi Arabia. Selling a war in defence of one of the world’s most treacherous countries would be politically difficult for any US President – and Obama’s record does not suggest strength and firmness. If anything, he has slighted and abandoned American allies who have shown themselves far more loyal than Saudi Arabia.
One strong possibility is that it’s a warning sound rather than a genuine intention. The Saudis, if they were serious about wanting the nukes, might have determined to keep it quiet until the nukes, the Pakistani operators and other supplies were shipping to Saudi Arabia. Discussing the move in the open puts everyone on their guard. (Would Obama have the nerve to shoot down Pakistani aircraft ferrying nukes? Or Israel? Or Iran, for that matter?) In that case, we don’t have much to actually worry about.
But we dare not take that chance.
What would happen if the Saudis did acquire nukes?
Saudi Arabia is the source of much of the rhetoric and funding that supports terrorist groups. The Princes may find themselves faced with demands that they turn their nukes on Israel. (This, of course, is a strong reason for the Princes not wanting nukes.) Terrorists have already taken weapons from the Saudi military – why would they not try to take the nukes? Terrorists have already come uncomfortably close to Pakistani nuclear facilities. Or would the nukes fuel a political upsurge that would put the most radical clerics in power?
But the effects would not remain confined to Saudi Arabia. Israel would find itself almost obliged to launch a pre-emptive strike against Saudi Arabia, which would destabilise the entire world. Iran would redouble its attempts to develop a working nuke of its own. Turkey and Egypt would probably start their own programs (assuming, of course, that such programs do not already exist.) In the meantime, the West would face the tricky task of punishing Saudi and Pakistan for breaking the Non-Proliferation Treaty (Saudi is a signatory, Pakistan is not) without sparking off economic shockwaves that might trigger a disaster.
And we might see a mushroom cloud in a Western city.
Frankly, preventing nukes from reaching Saudi Arabia should be a global priority. But I would be surprised if Obama did anything practical to stop the transfer.
And if that happens, the results might be unpredictable indeed.