Much of the soul-searching since the Iraq War has focused on the intelligence failures that produced the faulty WMD assessment. Less attention has been paid to the more puzzling question of why so many people readily accepted the argument that Saddam would arm Al Qaeda with nuclear weapons, despite the obvious absurdity of the claim.
It is this latter question that also seems most relevant amidst new concerns about a Saudi nuclear weapon. Earlier this month, in the run-up to the Iran-P5+1 talks, the BBC’s Mark Urban wrote a lengthy piece claiming that Pakistan has built nuclear weapons “on behalf of Saudi Arabia [that] are now sitting ready for delivery.”
The article attracted considerable attention and alarm, although it’s not clear why. Concerns about a secret Saudi-Pakistani nuclear pact date back to the 1970s and 1980s, and have become especially prevalent over the past decade.
Nonetheless, despite decades of suspicions, the existence of a Saudi-Pakistan nuclear pact is based almost entirely on speculation. Moreover, like the alleged Saddam-AQ nuclear nexus, the notion that Pakistan would supply Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons defies common sense.
As noted above, concerns about a Saud-Pakistan nuclear pact emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as Saudi aid to Pakistan increased rapidly. Many in Western foreign-policy circles feared that some of the Kingdom’s aid was being used to fund Pakistan’s nuclear program, with Riyadh expecting some of the final products in return.
However, the increase in Saudi aid during the 1980s was due to other factors, such as Pakistan basing some fifteen thousand troops in the Kingdom, and the Saudi government financing of over half of the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. If Saudi money directly funded Pakistan’s nuclear program, it was almost certainly because, as a Saudi advisor
Similar Western speculation centers on Saudi defense minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz’s trip to Pakistan in 1999. During the trip, Pakistani prime minister Sharif gave Sultan a tour of the Khan Research Laboratories, which produce highly enriched uranium, and an adjacent ballistic missile factory. He was believed to be the first foreign dignitary to view the highly secretive, military-run KRL, although he denied being given access to the secret parts of the complex.
It’s not exactly clear why giving the Saudi defense minister a tour of the facilities would be necessary for the two sides to forge a nuclear pact, or even how it would advance it. Furthermore, if the tour was part of a covert nuclear deal, it seems unlikely the two sides would have publicized it. Instead, the highly publicized nature of the tour suggests it was intended to symbolize the closeness of the Saudi-Pakistani relationship.
The timing of the trip supports this view. Specifically, after India’s nuclear tests the year before, Riyadh empowered PM Sharif to respond with his own nuclear tests by assuring him the Kingdom would help offset the international sanctions that were almost certain to follow.
Beyond pure speculation, suspicions of a Saudi-Pakistan nuclear pact also stem from the testimony of Mohammed Khilewi, the number two at the Saudi UN Mission until he defected in 1994. In seeking asylum in the U.S., Khilewi made a string of allegations to FBI agents, including that Saudi Arabia had a secret nuclear-weapons program and had helped fund Pakistan and Iraq’s nuclear programs. According to the UK Sunday Times, Khilewi claimed that in return for this funding, the two sides had signed a pact pledging that “if Saudi Arabia were attacked with nuclear weapons, Pakistan would respond against the aggressor with its own nuclear arsenal.”
The FBI agents who debriefed Khilewi did not put much stock into his claims. As his lawyer later complained, the two FBI agents “dismissed them as marginal and walked out of the meeting, refusing to take Khilewi into custody or give him protection.”
They were almost certainly right to do so. To begin with, Khilewi had a clear motivation for lying, given that his livelihood depended on being granted U.S. asylum. The U.S., however, had little reason to strain its alliance with Saudi Arabia on Khilewi’s account, unless of course he could be useful to U.S. interests.
His testimony all around appeared aimed at demonstrating his usefulness to the United States. Unfortunately, a central part of it would be proven unfounded a decade after he gave. Specifically, although Khilewi mentioned the Pakistani program, the overwhelming majority of his allegations were about the Kingdom’s alleged funding of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program in the 1980s. In Khilewi’s telling, Saudi Arabia gave Saddam at least $5 billion from 1985 through the Gulf War, in return for promises that it would receive nuclear weapons in return. Khilewi also claimed that Saudi nuclear scientists were regularly trained by their Iraqi counterparts in Baghdad. These allegations were seen as particularly damaging in the U.S. because of the still recent Gulf War.
After toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003, however, the U.S. gained extensive access to Iraqi documents and nuclear scientists, and conducted a large investigation into the history of Saddam’s nuclear-weapons program. None of what they found appears to have corroborated Khilewi’s claims about Saudi funding and scientific training. Nonetheless, he continues to be cited by reports claiming that there is a secret Pakistani-Saudi nuclear pact.
Khilewi’s allegations are notable, however, in demonstrating that he understood how deeply the U.S. fears nuclear weapons spreading, particularly to the Middle East, and his willingness to use this to his advantage. Whatever other differences Khilewi may have with the Saudi family, they share this in common. Indeed, for years now Saudi rulers have repeatedly threatened to go nuclear if the U.S. doesn’t stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.
But for their threat to be effective, it has to be credible. And to be credible, Riyadh has to be capable of making good on it. This puts Saudi officials in a difficult bind as it would take decades for them to build a nuclear weapon from scratch, if they were ever able to do so at all. As Jacques Hymans has noted, of the ten states that have begun dedicated nuclear weapons programs since 1970, only three have been successful, with the jury still out on Iran. Of the three success stories, building the bomb took an average of 17 years. Not counting the Shah’s nuclear activities, the Iranian case has stretched 30 years and counting.
Saudi Arabia is far less capable of building a nuclear weapon than Pakistan or Iran. Furthermore, threatening to acquire nuclear bombs twenty five years from now is not likely to cause undue alarm among U.S. officials. Thus, Saudi leaders need a way to make their threats seem more urgent.
Enter the secret nuclear pact with Pakistan. For the past decade, periodic and often well-timed reports have surfaced claiming that if Iran goes nuclear, Pakistan has nuclear weapons waiting for Saudi Arabia to claim. Alternatively, others suggest that Pakistan might deploy nuclear weapons to the Kingdom under the guardianship of Pakistani troops, much like the U.S. bases nuclear weapons in NATO countries.
The first of these reports was published by The Guardian in September 2003. The article’s two reporters—who were based out of Vienna (where the International Atomic Energy Agency’s headquarters is based)—said that they had “learned” of a recent strategic review Saudi Arabia had undertaken in which it considered building nuclear weapons or forming a new alliance with a nuclear armed power. The reporters speculated that Pakistan might be the potential new nuclear ally Saudi Arabia would seek out.
This report is one of the only ones that focuses on specific details rather than general speculation. Nonetheless, the authors provide little details about how they learned of the strategic review, though it doesn’t appear they saw the alleged document. It’s worth noting that Saudi Arabia isn’t a government that is particularly well known for (unplanned) leaks of high-level security documents, especially to a London newspaper.
The timing of the report is crucial here. Iran’s nuclear program had first been exposed publicly a year earlier. Then, in March 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq despite Saudi reservations that it would create a vacuum that Iran would fill. The Bush administration is believed to have tried to assuage Saudi concerns by suggesting that Saddam Hussein would only be the first regime it would topple. As The Guardian report discusses in great detail, in the months after the invasion, the Saudis had become increasingly concerned about America’s commitment to them.