Belmont Club

Danger In the East

Hugh Tomlinson of the Times, reporting from Riyadh, says Saudi Arabia will acquire nuclear weapons within weeks of a successful Iranian atomic effort. Citing Saudi government and military sources, Tomlinson wrote that “warheads would be purchased off the shelf from abroad, with work on a new ballistic missile platform getting under way to build an immediate deterrent, according to Saudi sources … The Times has learnt that commanders of Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Missile Force have been actively considering the missile platforms on the market.”

The likeliest source of such weapons, according to Western sources interviewed by the Times, is America’s staunch ally and loyal friend, Pakistan, which has recently been in high dudgeon over questions about its moral integrity.

Pakistan is the most likely vendor of warheads to Riyadh, according to Western officials.

Saudi Arabia is believed to have shouldered much of the cost of Pakistan’s nuclear program and bailed out Islamabad when it was sanctioned by the West after its first nuclear test, in 1998.

In exchange, the countries have long been rumoured to have an agreement whereby Pakistan would sell Saudi Arabia warheads and nuclear technology if security in the Gulf deteriorated.

Riyadh and Islamabad have persistently denied that any such arrangement exists, but Western defence officials and diplomats in Riyadh are convinced there is an understanding. One said the kingdom would call in its favour from Pakistan “the next day” after an Iranian nuclear test and could have warheads within weeks.

If true, Saudi Arabia’s actions might lead the casual observer to ask why if Israel were the boogeyman of the Middle East and the existential threat to Muslims everywhere — Saudi Arabia never really worried about the Jewish nuclear bomb, but only as it seems, about another Muslim one?

The Times report would at any rate explain the unprecedented buildup of the Pakistani nuclear stockpile in recent years. It was building weapons not just for itself, but supply a whole region. National Public Radio noted in 2011 that Pakistan already had a hundred warheads and was only getting warmed up.

Pakistan is believed to have developed nuclear weapons in the 1980s. It carried out its first underground nuclear tests in 1998, and in the years since, has built up an arsenal of perhaps 100 or more weapons.

Recently it has become clear that Pakistan’s leaders want a larger arsenal, says George Perkovich, a nuclear weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“When you talk to Pakistani military leaders, they’re not shy about it,” he says. “It’s not a secret.”

To build a larger stockpile, the country needs more plutonium, the core explosive material in its nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s leaders have embarked on a plan to expand its production facilities, including three new reactors that produce plutonium.

The Christian Science Monitor reported that Pakistan gave, as its reason for ramping up its nuke arsenal, tensions with India. The claim was met by skepticism even from Democrats.

Pakistani officials say the buildup is a response to the threat from India, which is spending $50 billion over the next five years on its military. “But to say it’s just an issue between just India and Pakistan is divorced from reality,” says former senator Sam Nunn, who co-chairs the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

What else is a lie?

The safety of the world in the coming decades depends on a choice of paths. Down one overgrown trail lies the arduous track to disarming Iran. Down a brightly lit, 16 lane concrete turnpike lies a nuclear armed Iran, glimmering in the distance, attended by the twin edifices of a nuclear armed Saudi Arabia supplied by the arsenal of Islam, Pakistan, the Land of the Pure. Which path will the politicians choose? Put another way, where’s the money at?

The President promised “a world without nuclear weapons”. The Atlantic described the President’s electrifying promise.

Just ten weeks after Inauguration Day in 2009, President Obama used his first overseas trip in office to announce his intention to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The U.S. “must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist: Yes we can,” he told a cheering crowd of 20,000 in Prague’s Hradcany Square, rhetorically linking the no-nukes push to the sky’s-the-limit idealism that had electrified supporters during his recent presidential campaign.

Obama’s high-profile endorsement of what arms-control advocates call “global zero” was a hugely significant step for a U.S. president to take.

But a hugely significant step down which path? Is the world now closer to a “Global Zero” or to a “Global Many”?

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