Iran’s foreign minister visits Pakistan Wednesday to discuss the conflict in Yemen, which many see as a fight for influence between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran also has recently reached a framework nuclear agreement with six world powers to possibly curb the weapons potential of its nuclear program.
Saudi Arabia, in the past, has reportedly sought to form its own nuclear alliances to counter a perceived Iranian threat. A member of the Saudi royal family and the kingdom’s former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, warned a few months ago that the kingdom would seek the same nuclear capabilities that Tehran is allowed to maintain under any deal.
In this regard, Pakistan’s relationship with the kingdom is unusual.
On one hand, it has sold nuclear secrets to Iran in the past through a network run by former chief Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. The network also sold nuclear technology or know-how to Libya and North Korea.
On the other, it has faced allegations of promising Saudi Arabia a nuclear umbrella against Iran.
'Unacknowledged nuclear partnership'
Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project of the Washington-based Brookings Institute, wrote in 2008 that Pakistan has “an unacknowledged nuclear partnership to provide the kingdom with a nuclear deterrent on short notice if ever needed.”
A BBC Newsnight story in 2013 declared that Saudi nuclear weapons were practically “on order” from Pakistan.
“Saudi Arabia has invested in Pakistani nuclear weapons projects, and believes it could obtain atomic bombs at will,” the story said based on sources.
As late as last month, a Wall Street Journal story on Saudi nuclear ambitions declared: “Saudi officials have told successive U.S. administrations they expect to have Pakistan’s support in the nuclear field, if called upon, because of the kingdom’s massive financial support for the South Asian country.”
While Pakistan denies all of these allegations - and unlike Pakistan’s nuclear dealings with Iran, Libya and North Korea, the Saudi connection has never been officially proven - its past behavior makes people suspicious.
“We know that Pakistan’s nuclear program was heavily subsidized by outsiders, financed by outsiders,” Pakistani nuclear physicist Abdul Hameed Nayyer said.
Some of those, such as Libya, who helped finance the program, received help with their nuclear programs in return.
Evidence of Pakistan’s involvement was discovered when Libya abandoned its nuclear program and turned over its equipment to the United States.
“If Saudi Arabia also financed Pakistan’s nuclear program, it is possible that Saudi Arabia would also demand such a thing from Pakistan,” Nayyer said.
While there is no concrete evidence of Saudi financing of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, critics point to ancillary support.
Slapped with sanctions
After Pakistan tested its nuclear device and was slapped with international sanctions, Saudi Arabia provided it with oil on deferred payments for three years and later forgave some of the payments.
According to Riedel, the Saudi promise to provide 50,000 barrels of free oil per day to counter any sanctions was key in helping then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to decide to go forward with its nuclear test.
Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz was given a tour of Pakistani nuclear facilities in 1999, soon after Pakistan’s nuclear test. Pakistan claims he was not shown the weapons program.
Awais Laghari, head of the foreign affairs committee in Pakistan’s national assembly, insists Pakistan's nuclear proliferation chapter is closed, and despite its excellent relationship with Saudi Arabia, the country will not share its nuclear weapons or know-how.
“Pakistan can’t afford to do that. … Pakistan’s own nuclear program would be at stake,” Laghari said.
Nuclear physicist Nayyer hopes Laghari is right.
Nayyer acknowledges that Pakistan’s nuclear support to Iran stopped after the A.Q. Khan network was discovered. And he thinks the changed international environment may have convinced Pakistan that the cost of nuclear proliferation now is too high.