[Note by Tom Gross]
BRITISH INTELLIGENCE: SAUDIS ARE ALREADY A SURROGATE NUCLEAR POWER
I attach an important article from The Business, revealing a joint Saudi-Pakistani plan to counter Iran’s rapidly escalating program to build a nuclear bomb. After Israel, the Saudis perceive themselves to be the main target of any Iranian nuclear threat.
(The Business is a British-based global business magazine, edited by Andrew Neil, the BBC host and former editor-in-chief of the London Sunday Times, who is also a subscriber to this email list.)
According to The Business, “in response to Shia Iran’s ambitions to possess a nuclear arsenal, Sunni Saudi Arabia has plans to create a nuclear capability of its own… if and when it is clear that Iran has the bomb (or is close to it), the Saudis will respond by buying one from Pakistan, a fellow Sunni state. They would also likely purchase Pakistani ballistic missiles to replace the Chinese ones they bought in the 1980s. Everything is already in place for this to happen…
“Western intelligence services are now convinced that Saudi Arabia played a large role in financing Pakistan’s nuclear bomb project. Riyadh’s aim was to guarantee it immediate access to a nuclear arsenal to counter the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran… British Intelligence (MI6) already regards Saudi Arabia as a surrogate nuclear power, able to join the club whenever it chooses.”
The Saudis have also announced plans to develop a civilian nuclear energy programme, despite being the world’s largest oil producer sitting on the globe’s biggest reserves.
“THE RESULTS COULD BE CATASTROPHIC”
The different branches of Islam are a significant factor in this situation. “If Iran was to become the only Muslim Middle Eastern member of the nuclear club, it would be the Gulf’s sole superpower, able to assert itself throughout the region (as it is doing already). This would be a historic humiliation for Saudi Arabia and (in Riyadh’s view) the Sunni branch of Islam.”
The logic for the Saudis to acquire the bomb is clear but the results could be catastrophic, says The Business. “At a stroke, the Saudis would have undercut the nationalist and religious appeal of Iran’s bomb. They would also be challenging Tehran to an arms race in which it could not afford to compete. But a Middle East with a nuclear Iran and Saudi Arabia vying for supremacy would be an intolerably dangerous and unstable place…”
-- Tom Gross
IT IS DIFFICULT TO BLAME RIYADH FOR SEEKING ITS OWN INSURANCE POLICY
Revealed: The Saudi-Pakistan plan to counter Iran’s nuclear ambitions
December 6, 2006
It is becoming clear that the first 21st century clash of civilisations – if there is to be one – will not pit Christians against Muslims but one branch of Islam against another. In yet another escalation of the Middle East crisis sparked by the disastrous American-led occupation of Iraq, The Business has learnt that, in response to Shia Iran’s ambitions to possess a nuclear arsenal, Sunni Saudi Arabia has plans to create a nuclear capability of its own. In a development that risks turning the Middle East into a nuclear powder keg, Western and Middle Eastern sources have told this magazine that, if and when it is clear that Iran has the bomb (or is close to it), the Saudis will respond by buying one from Pakistan, a fellow Sunni state. They would also likely purchase Pakistani ballistic missiles to replace the Chinese ones they bought in the 1980s. Everything is already in place for this to happen.
When it comes to nuclear weapons, the Saudi-Pakistan connection has been close for some time. Western intelligence services are now convinced that Saudi Arabia played a large role in financing Pakistan’s nuclear bomb project. Riyadh’s aim was to guarantee it immediate access to a nuclear arsenal to counter the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran. The Business has learnt that British Intelligence (MI6) already regards Saudi Arabia as a surrogate nuclear power, able to join the club whenever it chooses.
Riyadh’s long-standing links with the Pakistani bomb are only now being scrutinised. A senior Saudi who defected to America in the 1990s warned Washington that Riyadh was financially supporting the nuclear ambitions of Islamabad to ensure access to nuclear weapons of its own in the future. The Pakistani nuclear scientist and leader of the world’s biggest nuclear proliferation ring, AQ Khan, was invited to Saudi Arabia by its Defence Minister, who toured Pakistan’s nuclear facilities in 1999 and 2002 (the 1999 visit prompting a diplomatic complaint from Washington). A Saudi Prince was a guest of honour at a 2002 Pakistani missile test. Pakistan was given almost $2bn-worth of Saudi oil after the international community initiated sanctions against Islamabad following its 1998 nuclear test.
A NUCLEAR ARSENAL OFF THE SHELF
By buying a nuclear arsenal off the shelf from Pakistan, the Saudis would instantly acquire a deterrent without the hindrances that accompany developing one from scratch. It would wrongfoot any countermove: the country would be in the nuclear club before any effort to prevent it could be mounted. The Saudis would then likely embark on fully developing their own nuclear weapons facilities. They have already announced plans to develop a civilian nuclear energy programme, despite being the world’s largest oil producer sitting on the globe’s biggest reserves.
Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If it wished to stay within the letter of its obligations Riyadh could demure from acquiring the weapons itself and instead invite Pakistan to station nuclear weapons in the Kingdom. But, considering the volatile nature of the situation in the Middle East, especially following Iran’s emergence as the Gulf region’s first nuclear power, the Saudis will likely opt for direct command and control of any deterrent. Indeed, the current Saudi posture already marks a shift away from the late King Fahd’s strategy of countering any Iranian bomb with an explicit American guarantee that Saudi Arabia fell under the US nuclear umbrella. Riyadh fears that Washington no longer provides a credible guarantee.
It is no surprise that Iran’s bid for regional hegemony, including the leadership of Political Islam in the area, is causing extreme concern in Riyadh. But few have forecast the extent to which it would force the Saudis to reconsider their approach to Iraq, the United States and – most strikingly – even Israel. The largely-Sunni Saudis have already seen Shi’ites sympathetic to Iran coming to power in Iraq. Iranian-backed Shia militia now control much of southern Iraq , which borders Saudi Arabia . Indeed, Riyadh is acutely aware that it is now sharing a 500-mile border with what is rapidly becoming an Iranian vassal. The implosion of Iraq has swept away the traditional bulwark against Iranian expansion and regional ambitions. If Iran was to become the only Muslim Middle Eastern member of the nuclear club, it would be the Gulf’s sole superpower, able to assert itself throughout the region (as it is doing already). This would be a historic humiliation for Saudi Arabia and (in Riyadh’s view) the Sunni branch of Islam.
A HORRIFIC, BLOODY PROTRACTED AFFAIR
Animosity between the Sunnis and Shi’ites dates back to the schism of 655 AD. The one country where the Shi’ites gained power was Iran; in the rest of the Middle East, Sunnis ruled Shi’ites. The British Empire, which favoured politically powerful minorities as part of its divide and rule strategy, sanctioned this state of affairs. Until the invasion of Iraq, the Sunni minority – roughly 20% of Iraq’s population – had all the political power. With the rise of Shia Iran and Iranian-backed Shia power in Iraq, Sunni rulers across the Middle East are deeply fearful about Iran’s ability to stir up their Shi’ite minorities. Recent elections in Bahrain, where a majority Shi’ite population is ruled by Sunni royals and government, have underlined the stirrings of anger and resentment against the Sunni ascendancy.
Many Sunnis feel that a new Shi’ia crescent is emerging that will span Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, a development which the Saudis wish to counter. Earlier this summer, the Gulf monarchies were noticeably silent during the early weeks of the conflict in the Lebanon because they wanted to give Israel time to knock out Iran’s proxy, the Shi’ite terror group Hezbollah. It was only when it became apparent that Israel was incapable of doing so that they joined in the criticism.
A further sign of changing times came with a meeting between Israeli and Saudi Arabia to discuss the Iranian threat in September. Bizarrely, this went almost unnoticed in the West, despite its huge significance. Some Israeli strategists now speculate that Israel, which is also desperate to prevent the Iranian regime from getting the bomb, and Saudi Arabia, which shares the same goal, could even form an anti-Tehran alliance. That is probably far-fetched but the fact that it is even being discussed is a stark illustration of the extent of Saudi fear at the thought of an Iranian nuclear hegemony.
Any Middle East intra-Islamic war of religion, if it comes, would be a horrific, bloody and protracted affair. In Iraq, the Shi’ite- Sunni divide is already on display at its most brutal. Sunni terrorists bomb Shi’ite Islam’s holiest places; Shi’ite death squads torture and murder as many Sunnis as they can get their hands on. Shia hardliners believe that the only way to break the historic Sunni stranglehold on Iraq is with genocidal violence. Even in majority Sunni countries, such as Pakistan, communal violence is worsening despite government crackdowns. As Sunni-Shia ethnic cleansing grimly gathers pace in Iraq, Saudis worry about the concentration of its Shi’ite minority in the oil-rich east of the country (concerns heightened when Shi’ite turnout in the recent municipal elections was double that of the Sunni).
So far the Saudis have taken a low-key approach to Iraq: they are keen not to anger their American patrons and aware of how instability could so easily flow back over their border. Efforts have been made to stem the flow of young Saudis heading to fight in Iraq. But, with the Saudis uncertain about America’s willingness to stay the course, they are beginning to reconsider. In an article in the Washington Post last week, Nawaf Obaid – a Saudi government adviser – floated a new, more proactive Saudi policy. He stated that if America left Iraq, there would be a “massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.”
The piece was timed to coincide with a proposal from the US State Department for a so-called 80% solution in Iraq that would involve effectively ignoring the Sunni population and instead working exclusively with the Shi’ite and Kurdish leadership. Such an approach would mean, in practice, Sunnis being forced out of mixed areas in Iraq and denied a share of Iraq’s oil revenues. Through Obaid, the Saudis were making clear publicly that they would not accept such a plan, especially since it would undermine the existing regime in Riyadh. The Saudi Royals are well aware that if they are seen to be ineffective in protecting their fellow Sunnis in Iraq, another bin Laden-like figure could emerge as the leader of a mujahideen to protect Iraq’s Sunnis, challenging the legitimacy of the House of Saud.
DEPLOYING THE OIL WEAPON
As the Saudis look to Pakistan for nuclear insurance against Iran, so they are also contemplating deploying the oil weapon against their regional rival. Obaid claimed that Saudi Arabia could afford to cut the price of oil in half, a move that would bankrupt Iran. In 2005 the Saudis initiated a $50bn scheme designed to increase their oil production by 1.5m barrels per day and give Riyadh more leverage over prices. Iran has nothing like the same clout: its oil industry has weakened considerably. Iran is currently producing 5% less than its OPEC quota because of technical difficulties; the oil minister has warned that without substantial investment, production will collapse by 13% a year. Yet, because of the difficulties of attracting foreign investment and expertise to Iran, it is hard to see where the money would come from, especially since Tehran has little cash in its own coffers.
All this accentuates the strategic logic of Saudi Arabia purchasing the bomb. At a stroke, the Saudis would have undercut the nationalist and religious appeal of Iran’s bomb. They would also be challenging Tehran to an arms race in which it could not afford to compete. But a Middle East with a nuclear Iran and Saudi Arabia vying for supremacy would be an intolerably dangerous and unstable place, especially when the Israeli dimension is added. The old cold-war nuclear certainties of deterrence and mutually-assured destruction are less than reassuring in a region where ancient hatreds and religious fervour are so strong. Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, let us note, prayed openly for the apocalypse at the UN General Assembly.
Iraq could easily turn into the battlefield for a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with disastrous consequences for global oil supplies and the world economy. Such a conflict would involve countries that produce 13.4m barrels of oil a day – 20% of world oil production – and have 43% of the world’s proven oil reserves. The result would be a price of oil far above $100 a barrel and a deep economic shock for the rest of the world, triggering chaos and crisis from China to Chile.
The Bush Administration’s post-Iraq legacy is clear to see and it is a grim one: a Middle East in which countries are no longer prepared to rely on American guarantees of protection, where Iran is emerging as the regional superpower and where the ancient Sunni-Shi’ite divide is becoming the defining issue, with both sides set to arm themselves with weapons of mass destruction. If Iran is prevented from going nuclear, catastrophe might be avoided. But after the debacle in Iraq, it is hard to see who will stop Iran. It is difficult to blame Riyadh for seeking its own insurance policy.