The Nuclear Tipping Point by Kurt M. Campbell and Robert J. Einhorn examines the factors, both domestic and transnational, that shape nuclear policy. Looking at Saudi Arabia, one chapter asks how Saudi Arabia might be pushed over the edge of a nuclear tipping point? This cogent analysis provides a detailed description of Saudi Arabia's security concerns and how they relate (or don't) to nuclear weapons.
Thesis: The weight of the evidence regarding Saudi Arabia’s actions and experience over five decades indicates that the country does not seek to acquire and could not indigenously develop nuclear weapons. It is possible, nevertheless, to envision (extreme) circumstances in which SA would take the risk. The U.S. is the only country capable of providing security assurances that would absolutely preclude SA’s consideration of nuclear weapons.
Chinese Missile Deal: SA signed NPT in 1988 in order to placate the U.S. Government after Saudi Arabia had surreptitiously purchased intermediate range Chinese ballistic missiles earlier that year. Saudi Arabia purchased missiles because other Persian Gulf countries already possessed such weapons and no chance U.S. would supply them (range would endanger Israel). The U.S. was alarmed because of the utility of such missiles for delivering nuclear weapons; we were concerned that Saudi Arabia might be pursuing nuclear weapons. Signing the NPT was deal for U.S. to allow missiles to remain in Saudi Arabia. The Missiles are now obsolete, have little military value, but would be delivery vehicle if SA acquired nukes;
Saudi Official Nuclear Policy: refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons and form helping other countries to do so; want nuclear-free Middle East. Saudi Arabia criticizes Israel but understands Israel can’t give up its nukes. Note: SA has not signed safeguards agreement of NPT and has not reinforced its policy by legislation (admittedly not feasible in absolute monarchy). The widely-held view is that nuclear weapons are not part of SA’s strategic agenda because they are too costly and there is no real strategic need (note: no attempts to get nuclear power, seeming sign of SA’s lack of interest in nuclear weapons).
Khilewi Affair: a Saudi diplomat requesting asylum in U.S. in ’94 claiming to have evidence that Saudi Arabia tried to buy research reactors from China as part of effort to get nuclear weapons and that SA financially supported Iraq’s nuclear program. There was no confirmation of the accusations; very skimpy and questionable documentary “evidence;” Khilewi stopped making public comments. The media speculation on purposes of Saudi officials’ visits to Pakistan (i.e., to explore getting nuclear weapons) has not been substantiated.
Saudi Arabia's Strategic Vulnerability: Saudi Arabia's objective for having nukes would be deterrence only. There is no reasons for Saudi Arabia to be aggressive with its neighbors. Saudi Arabia’s geographical vulnerability (size, low population, uninhabitable center of country, vulnerable oil facilities) plus fears of threat to House of Saud (not the state of SA) might make monarchy consider getting nukes; threat of aggressive, anti-Western Islamic militancy that would target House of Saud. Saudi Arabia went on massive military purchasing program in late 1970’s to early 1980’s (fears resulting from Iranian revolution (esp. lack of U.S. action to stop it), communist takeover in Afghanistan). Today, however, the Saudi Arabian military is still not a competent force due to weakness in personnel, operations, logistic, etc. and inadequate strategic thinking. The Result? Saudi Arabia could not defend itself against all-out assault by Iran and would require help from their security guarantor, the U.S.
States of Uncertainty: multiple uncertainties:
• Saudi Arabia itself (aging monarchy without substantial line of succession; economic problems [although this may have changed since 2004] hampering investment in military sector);
• Iran: religious conflict brings inherent tension; Russia’s aid to Iran’s nuclear program; (One expert: if Iran gets nuclear warheads, Saudi Arabia will feel compelled to acquire a deterrent stockpile);
• Iraq: removal of Saddam creates dangers: ethnically fragmented Iraq; democratic Iraq brings radical ideas; new strongman tries to get revenge for SA’s support of U.S.;
• U.S.: long-term guarantor of Saudi Arabia’s security, but 9/11 created strains; also ties to U.S. are domestic and regional political liability; reduced U.S. military presence may help House of Saud’s political security;
• If SA can’t assume U.S. will always protect it against external threats, might House of Saud consider nuclear weapons?;
• But: logical perhaps, but would face strenuous opposition from U.S. and Israel, raise risk of sanctions; SA doesn’t like confrontation; would endanger SA investment in U.S.; Chinese unlikely to help with modernizing missiles (no strategic gain nowadays);
Pakistan Factor: possible source of modern missiles; technical know-how, fellow conservative Muslim country, needs cash; several visits by Saudi Arabian officials to Pakistan, including nuclear facilities;
• But: Pakistan unlikely to risk sanctions by U.S. (experienced them in 1990’s); no evidence that SA and Pakistan have an informal security guarantee arrangement;
Policy Considerations for the U.S.:
• Saudi Arabia no longer has full confidence in American support; U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia do not necessarily include preservation of House of Saud;
• Putting Saudi Arabia under U.S. nuclear umbrella; not tied to any particular government, might deter Tehran; but: would not deal with non-nuclear and indirect threats since U.S. wouldn’t use nukes in such situations;
U.S. confidence-building measures are possible:
• Start genuine “strategic dialogue” to gain shared understanding of bilateral relationship and future of region; currently SA and U.S. have conflicting rationales for U.S. presence, perceptions of threats in region, etc.
• Stop publicly characterizing what SA has agreed to refuse to do; creates domestic political problems for SA;
• Tell Saudi Arabia (privately, but strongly) that any consideration of nuclear weapons would be counterproductive; (note no Congressional support, e.g.,)
• Consider new formulation of “Carter Doctrine” (perhaps after Iraq situation is stable) stressing vital U.S. interests in SA and determination to prevent disruption of oil flow, without regard to “differences of the moment” or identity of ruler; would also show other countries in region that U.S. will not tolerate a repeat of 1979 (Iran) or Taliban-style rule;
• A U.S. statement should also make clear that we cannot tolerate three outcomes in Saudi Arabia: 1) disruption of oil flow; 2) confiscation of U.S. assets; 3) acquisition of nuclear weapons