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Saudis May Go Nuclear to Counter Iran Despite Deal

Iranian female worshippers join a rally after their Friday prayers to condemn Saudi-led airstrikes against Yemen, under a mural of the late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini and Basij paramilitary force, in Tehran, April 3, 2015.
Iranian female worshippers join a rally after their Friday prayers to condemn Saudi-led airstrikes against Yemen, under a mural of the late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini and Basij paramilitary force, in Tehran, April 3, 2015.

Washington's reassurances that the framework nuclear deal reached Thursday will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb may not be enough to keep Saudi Arabia from taking increasingly bold steps to counter Tehran.

And there are new warnings that one of those steps could include transforming the kingdom into a nuclear power, perhaps overnight.

“The Saudi Arabian leadership has said that Saudi Arabia will go nuclear,” said former U.S. ambassador Mark Wallace, now the chief executive officer at the Counter Extremism Project and co-founder of United Against Nuclear Iran [UANI]. “That may be as easy as paying for and taking delivery of a bomb from Pakistan.”

Publicly, the Saudis have cautiously welcomed the agreement, with King Salman telling U.S. President Barack Obama late Thursday he hopes the framework deal will strengthen the stability and security of the Middle East.

Former diplomats and intelligence officials, however, say Saudi Arabia’s actions tell a different story.

“It is entirely unclear how far the Saudis are going to be willing to go to contest Iran or to roll it back,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice resident for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, via Skype.

It is not clear how long it would take Saudi Arabia to gain nuclear parity with Iran, but Schanzer said it is clear that, at the very least, the Saudis are seriously considering a move in that direction.

“It underscores how incredibly worried the Saudis are and Sunni states are about the growth of Iranian influence in the region,” he said.

Already, Saudi Arabia has put together a coalition of Sunni Arab countries to carry out airstrikes in Yemen, reacting to what it perceives as a threat by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. And recent talks with Pakistan about supporting the campaign are raising questions about whether there may also be discussions about help on the nuclear front.

Still, there is skepticism that Pakistan, despite a long alliance with Saudi Arabia, will provide such support willingly.

“Pakistan is so unlikely, in my view, to engage in nuclear cooperation with the Saudis in a way that would allow the Saudis to have the capacity to build a nuclear weapon any time soon,” said Michael Kugelman, a Pakistan expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “I think it’s a non-starter. I say that today. Things could change.”

Pakistan shares a border with Iran and may have reason to fear Iran could stir up trouble by providing funding and support for Pakistan’s Shi'ite population. Such concerns, however, could be outweighed by other factors.

“It certainly is a very difficult predicament for the Pakistanis because they have received so much from the Saudis, whether it be economic assistance or military support over the years,” Kugelman said.

The Saudis also appear to be cultivating other options. Just last month, Riyadh signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with South Korea to look into the possibility of building two nuclear reactors at a cost of about $2 billion.

Various former and current Saudi officials have said in recent months that Riyadh would demand the same nuclear capabilities Iran is allowed under any final deal.

"I've always said whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same," former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal told the BBC in a March 16 interview.

There is also a chance, though, that Saudi Arabia will not wait to counter Iran by building itself into a nuclear power.

“Yemen in a lot of respects represents drawing a line, dare I say, in the sand to make it clear to the Iranians that they’re going to confront what the Iranians are doing throughout the region,” former U.S. ambassador Dennis Ross told an audience Wednesday in Washington.

“From the Saudi standpoint, at least," he added, "they see themselves increasingly surrounded by what they believe are Iranian-inspired threats or Iranian-inspired challenges.”

Schanzer, with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, believes that’s why the Saudi-led air offensive in Yemen bears close scrutiny.

“The longer that this plays out I think the higher the probability we begin to see some mission creep and perhaps strikes on Iranian-backed targets elsewhere in the region,” he said.

Some Saudi officials seem to be at least talking with a view to their wider concerns. At an event this past week in Washington, Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir alluded to Iranian support for the Houthis, saying it is “a situation that is not tolerable.”

“We see the consequences of that in Lebanon with Hezbollah, where a militia pretty much dominates the state and threatens state institutions,” he said.

U.S. officials do not see the Saudi efforts in Yemen as a sign Riyadh has its sights set on becoming an expansionist power or on trying to counter Iran move for move.

“More broadly, their concern is countering extremism with the overarching goal of trying to reconstitute some semblance of stability,” a U.S. official told VOA on the condition of anonymity. “They place a high value on stability.”

Another concern is the potential impact Saudi moves will have on the ongoing efforts to battle Sunni extremists, including the Islamic State group and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

One U.S. counterterrorism official told VOA that as part of the effort to counter the Shi'ite Houthis, it is possible local Sunni actors within Yemen will find themselves aligning with groups like AQAP to gain “strategic advantages.”

Former U.S. ambassador Mark Wallace said he believes the same sort of dynamic could also play out on a wider scale.

“Sometimes it can be that countering Iran can lead to inadvertent support for those groups, all of which would be deemed extremist,” he said.