Belmont Club

The Djinn Emerges

Mark Urban, a diplomatic editor at the BBC writes that Saudi nuclear weapons are  ‘on order’ from Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia has invested in Pakistani nuclear weapons projects, and believes it could obtain atomic bombs at will, a variety of sources have told BBC Newsnight.

While the kingdom’s quest has often been set in the context of countering Iran’s atomic programme, it is now possible that the Saudis might be able to deploy such devices more quickly than the Islamic republic.

Earlier this year, a senior Nato decision maker told me that he had seen intelligence reporting that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are now sitting ready for delivery. …

This summer experts at defence publishers Jane’s reported the completion of a new Saudi CSS-2 base with missile launch rails aligned with Israel and Iran.

These developments will probably come as a shock to those who put their trust in the nonproliferation treaty, since Saudi Arabia is actually a signatory.

Urban noted the Kingdom had been falling out of alignment with the US since 2003, when it began to re-assess its strategic posture, a situation accelerated by Saudi resentment over the topping of Saddam Hussein. Gradually it became the Kingdom’s goal to match the emergence of a nuclear Iran with its own deterrent.

The public and highly dramatic Saudi anger over president Obama’s desire to negotiate with Iran may have been the last straw or simply a pretext to carry out a plan long intended. The Saudis are the first country on record to refuse a seat in the Security Council.

The supposed weapons are aimed not at Iran but at anyone else who may threaten its interests. Urban said “unnamed Pakistanis opined that “it is logical for the Saudis to step in as the physical ‘protector’ of the Arab world by seeking nuclear weapons, according to one of the State Department cables posted by Wikileaks.”

Pakistan has denied the accusations. Al Arabiya writes

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday denied as “speculative, mischievous and baseless” a report by the BBC that Islamabad has agreed to sell nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia.

“Pakistan is a responsible nuclear weapon state with robust command and control structures and comprehensive export controls,” a Pakistani official told the BBC’s Newsnight.

However those unwilling to trust in Pakistan’s assurance may conclude that the Sunni Arab world now has access to nuclear weapons either via the Saudi nuclear umbrella (as ‘protector’ of the Arab world) or direct from Pakistan itself.

But the Guardian tells basically the same story as the BBC, without the punchline. In the middle of last month Ian Black detailed Saudi Anger at the US-Iran ‘thaw’. It roughly follows the same narrative arc as the BBC’s story.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been strategic rivals since before the 1979 revolution – the shah was known as the “policeman of the Gulf” – as well as the respective leaders of the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. Iran’s position was inadvertently strengthened by the US-led invasion of Iraq and the installation of a Shia government in Baghdad. Tehran backs Assad and Hizbullah in Lebanon while Riyadh openly advocates regime change in Damascus. Syria’s conflict is indeed, in some ways, a proxy war.

The Saudis also fear Iran’s nuclear ambitions – King Abdullah famously urged the US to “cut off the head of the snake” – and have repeatedly signalled that they will acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does. They blame Tehran – though without much evidence – for encouraging Shia opposition to the Sunni monarchy in neighbouring Bahrain. Shias in the kingdom’s eastern provinces face state repression and Saudi clerics have used inflammatory sectarian language over Syria, especially Assad’s Alawite community….

In private conversations senior Saudis are scathing about President Obama’s preference for inspections and disarmament over military action … US support for moderate Islamists is another source of resentment. The Saudis were furious at Obama’s (belated) abandonment of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and subsequent embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. …

Yet alarm is palpable elsewhere in the Gulf. “GCC leaders must wake up to the looming danger,” warned the influential Emirati businessman Khalaf al-Habtoor. “The countdown has started; the US/Iranian plan is about to be implemented. A serious plan of action is urgently required. GCC states are strong enough to stand alone both economically and militarily and should not permit foreign powers to make decisions for them.”

That “countdown” has apparently reached the single digits.

Not everyone is worried, only last week Shashank Joshi wrote in Bloomberg that “Obama Can Safely Ignore Saudi Tantrums”.

Trouble has been brewing in this relationship for years. Saudi Arabia was aghast at President Barack Obama’s support for the 2011 Egyptian revolution, which overthrew another old U.S. ally, former President Hosni Mubarak. It was aggrieved, too, at the lack of U.S. support for that year’s Saudi-led intervention to put down a pro-democracy uprising in Bahrain.

More recently, in July, the Saudis took issue with U.S. criticism of the military coup that toppled Egypt’s freely elected Muslim Brotherhood regime. While the Saudis pledged billions of dollars of support for the thinly disguised junta that took control in Cairo, the U.S cut aid to undermine it.

Now the Saudis are fretting that rejuvenated U.S.-Iranian nuclear diplomacy might lead to a wider rapprochement at their expense. Above all, the Saudis have lost patience with Obama’s hesitance in arming the rebels who are fighting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, an Iranian ally. The final straw appears to have been U.S.’s decision to cancel planned missile strikes to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons, and Obama’s support for a Russian-backed disarmament plan and peace talks.

But the conclusion was that the Kingdom needed Obama more than Obama needed Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is shooting itself in the foot. Spurning a seat on the UN Security Council has deprived it of an important platform and will make no difference to Russia’s and China’s support for the Assad regime. Nor will refusing to cooperate with the U.S. make Obama fall in line with the Saudi goal of an absolute rebel victory in Syria. Instead, the White House probably will become even more skeptical of the increasingly fragmented Islamist opposition forces and of Saudi Arabia’s reliability as a partner in Syria.

But that analysis may not accurately depict the real situation. The plain meaning of any Saudi acquisition of nukes would be to nullify, as trivial and irrelevant, president Obama’s signature campaign to disarm Syria of chemical weapons. Moreover, it will signal that nuclear nonproliferation is dead or dying. The nuclear armament of Iran has as predicted, set off an arms race that will resonate around the world. How long until and Japan, Korea or Germany get their own arms?

Saudi Arabia has been the hinge around which American policy has pivoted for the last 30 years. The first pivot occurred when Ronald Reagan built a coalition around it to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan. The second pivot was September 11 when the forces engendered by that anti-Soviet coalition turned against the West with dramatic effec in Manhattan. Bush’s response — the invasion of Iraq — was the third pivot. OIF can be characterized as an attempt to “kill the Iraqi chicken to scare the Saudi monkey”, an effort to reimpose the dominance of the hegemon on a rebellious regional ally without actually destroying it. It was an effort which the Kingdom strongly resisted.

The Saudi pushback took the form we loosely remember as the Iraq War during which the Saudis and their allies waged proxy war against US forces in Iraq via an an army of thousands of Jihadis.

Part of “scaring the Saudi monkey” took the form of opening a door to Iran. Iraq was potentially the second most powerful Shia majority country in the world, hence the anti-Sunni surge in Anbar coupled with the neutralization, yet preservation of ambiguous figures like Sadr posed a double threat: it took Iraq away from the Sunnis and created a potential rival to Teheran.

But the fourth pivot was to come. Saudi policy was defeated on the battlefield but it was powerful politically. The Kingdom assisted in the election of Barack Obama who decamped from Iraq no sooner than he was elected. It will be recalled that Obama advertised his opposition Iraq loudly — hint, hint. He famously bowed to the Saudi King. He signed onto the Arab Spring. In the beginning there was almost no daylight between the Kingdom and Obama.

Then a fifth pivot occurred for reasons which are not completely clear. But it is reasonable to suppose it arose from the unintended effects of following the Saudi lead.  The redeployment of US forces to Afghanistan left the opened door between Iraq and Iran unguarded and Teheran promptly stepped through the portal. Then the “Arab Spring” began to unravel, and Obama unsurprisingly got cold feet.  The gap between Saudi and administration positions widened apace as recriminations grew.

Obama committed the double blunder of abandoning a working strategy without one of his own.  He zigged than he zagged and finally tied himself up in knots. Though the Bush idea may have been flawed in execution, it was probably the last one in Washington viewed itself as the hegemon trying to impose hegemony. In contrast, the policy which replaced it was designed by the same people who gave the world the Obamacare website.

Eventually things reached the present stage. The Saudis had clearly given up on Obama by the time they threw the Security Council position in his face. This development leaves the administration in an awkward position. Washington had traditionally played Riyadh against Moscow and Teheran. Now both Riyadh and Teheran — and conceivably Moscow — were against it.

If Washington was hoist on its own petard by the Jihad, it was once again strung up by the Arab Spring. The administration’s position is now a very interesting one because the Kingdom, in declaring its strategic independence, has surrendered the primary benefit of free-riding.  Henceforth it must now pay its way.  Saudi Arabia’s arms will not be the last word. Israel, Iran, Turkey — perhaps the Southern Europeans — will surely be tempted to follow suit. That is the nature of arms races.  And in that race the Kingdom will find that not even they can always keep up with the Joneses.

And as for Obama, one can only hope he is long gone by then. Retired to the links in Hawaii when relaxing from writing his fake memoirs.  He is better at that than at foreign policy.

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