Saudi Arabia has reached out to its ally Pakistan to acquire “off-the-shelf” atomic weapons as a nuclear arms race begins to shape up with Shiite rival Iran, US sources said.
“For the Saudis the moment has come,” a former US defense official told the UK’s Sunday Times. “There has been a longstanding agreement in place with the Pakistanis and the House of Saud has now made the strategic decision to move forward.”
The anonymous former official said the US did not believe that “any actual weaponry has been transferred yet,” but declared that “the Saudis mean what they say and they will do what they say.”
Tensions between Tehran and the kingdom have grown in the past few months as Saudi Arabia stepped up its air campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. King Salman of Saudi Arabia refused an invitation to attend a landmark summit hosted by US President Barack Obama last week, amid ongoing angst over US-led nuclear talks with Iran.
Former Saudi intelligence head Prince Turki bin Faisal expressed the kingdom’s desire for a nuclear weapon last month at the Asan Plenum, a conference held by the South Korean-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too,” he said, according to The New York Times.
Faisal also warned that the Iranian nuclear deal “opens the door to nuclear proliferation, not closes it, as was the initial intention.”
According to the Sunday Times report, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship for decades. Saudi Arabia has given Pakistan billions of dollars in subsidized oil, while the latter has unofficially agreed to supply the Gulf state with nuclear warheads.
“Nuclear weapons programs are extremely expensive and there’s no question that a lot of the funding of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program was provided by Saudi Arabia,” Lord David Owen, who served as England’s foreign secretary from 1977-1979, told the weekly publication.
“Given their close relations and close military links, it’s long been assumed that if the Saudis wanted, they would call in a commitment, moral or otherwise, for Pakistan to supply them immediately with nuclear warheads,” he added.
However, the report added, Lt.Gen. Khalid Kidwai, who helped pioneer Pakistan’s nuclear program, denied that Pakistan had ever granted Saudi Arabia access to its nuclear technology.
The main concern shared by US and European officials was that if Saudi Arabia were to acquire an atomic weapon, it could spur other Sunni nations to follow suit.
An anonymous British military official also told The Sunday Times that Western military leaders “all assume the Saudis have made the decision to go nuclear.”
The official added, “The fear is that other Middle Eastern powers — Turkey and Egypt — may feel compelled to do the same and we will see a new, even more dangerous, arms race.”
This position was also mirrored by other, non-Saudi Gulf states at a summit last week between the US and several Arab countries. One unnamed Gulf state leader attending the Camp David summit told The New York Times, “We can’t sit back and be nowhere as Iran is allowed to retain much of its capability and amass its research.”