Disappointed with the US, Saudi Arabia eyes the bomb

Egypt and ‘maybe even Turkey’ will also seek to acquire atomic weapons if Iran’s nuclear ambitions aren’t reined in, expert says

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan at his palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 2008 (photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)
Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan at his palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 2008 (photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)

With the prospect of an interim nuclear deal with Iran gaining traction, Saudi Arabia has been expressing growing disappointment with the Obama administration and mulling alternatives to a diplomatic solution, including obtaining atomic warheads.

A series of unusually critical statements by Saudi officials in recent weeks has highlighted Riyadh’s mistrust of Washington’s treatment of the Iranian nuclear issue. And the Saudis, who rarely speak publicly about their fear of a nuclear Iran, are seemingly distancing themselves from the United States and moving to a policy of self-reliance.

The first official to speak up was Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The head of Saudi intelligence and former ambassador to the US told a group of European diplomats on October 22 that his kingdom plans to make “a major shift” in its relations with the US over the American laxity in Syria and softness in dealing with Iran.

“Relations with the US have been deteriorating for a while, as Saudi feels that the US is growing closer with Iran and the US also failed to support Saudi during the Bahrain uprising,” a source “close to Saudi policy” told Reuters.

Next came Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi chief of intelligence and brother of the current foreign minister. In an interview with The Washington Post on November 5, Prince Turki said Saudi Arabia supported a nuclear-free Middle East — encompassing Israel as well as Iran — with the US providing a “nuclear security umbrella” to the Middle East, as it does with Germany and Japan.

“I suggested two years ago that the [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries should consider seriously all options, including acquiring nuclear weapons, if Iran acquires nuclear weapons,” the Saudi statesman told the paper.

That vision may have already been translated into action. According to a report in BBC’s Newsnight on November 6, Saudi Arabia has invested in Pakistan’s nuclear program in return for the possibility of quickly deploying Pakistani nuclear warheads in Saudi Arabia upon demand.

“I do think that the Saudis believe that they have some understanding with Pakistan that, in extreme, they would have claim to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan,” Gary Samore, until March 2013 President Barack Obama’s counter-proliferation adviser, told the BBC.

But Ephraim Asculai, an expert on nuclear proliferation at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, told The Times of Israel that no conclusive evidence existed on Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions.

“Saudi Arabia makes no statements. We have assumptions that Saudi Arabia could use Pakistan if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, but there’s no solid information on this,” Asculai said, but noted that a nuclear Iran would certainly motivate Saudi Arabia to get the bomb.

“I don’t exactly know what the schedule will be, but there will certainly be countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and maybe even Turkey that will want to obtain nuclear capabilities.”

“Who trusts Kerry and Obama?” wondered columnist Abdulla al-Otibi in an op-ed published Sunday in A-Sharq al-Awsat, a daily funded by the Saudi royal family, following US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Riyadh last week.

“In reality, no one. [He is trusted] neither internationally — having weakened his country in the face of powerful rivals — nor regionally, having no strategy to tie the strings together and deal with contradictions… he continues to communicate with Iran and has taken no serious position on Syria.”

Obama, continued Otibi, should be no less cognizant of his allies in the Sunni Arab world than of his adversaries in Iran and Syria.

“Obama must understand that his most difficult decisions are not with regards to Iran or Syria, but with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt and Jordan, and the new bloc they have formed,” he wrote. “He must understand that the allies have their internal force, which should cause him to reconsider his policies which promise no good.”

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