Will the Saudis Go Nuclear?
Under what circumstances might Riyadh conclude that the clandestine and rapid acquisition of a nuclear arsenal would help address the challenges the country faces?
As for the United States, the response would likely be relatively muted. After all, the Trump administration has made a major strategic investment in the MbS regime as part of its broader desire to cripple Iran’s geostrategic ambitions in the Middle East. President Trump himself has taken a more relaxed view about the geostrategic consequence of a significant ally acquiring nuclear weapons—see no further than his public comments about Japan and South Korea acquiring such nuclear capabilities. A similarly tempered response may well emerge from Israel, especially if Washington gives Riyadh a “pass” on this decision. Yet, Riyadh could face a U.S. Congress that would attempt to impose a wide range of military and economic sanctions. Just earlier this year though, President Trump vetoed Congress’ attempt to block arms sales to the Saudis. How much Congress can actually achieve against Saudi Arabia then is an open question.
As for Iran, the Saudi acquisition of nuclear weapons may provide a political green light for Tehran to overtly and rapidly abandon the JCPOA. Aside from publicly and loudly decrying Riyadh for its unilateral decision to pursue a nuclear arsenal, the Iranian government would likely respond cautiously and wait to see how the great powers respond to this unexpected turn of events. Thereafter, Tehran might opt for a strategy of “lying low” under the geopolitical radar, continuing development of its own nuclear program while the rest of the world voices consternation over Saudi Arabia’s sudden lunge for the bomb. This approach would net Iran with several geostrategic and economic benefits, including continued fruitful financial and energy relations with the EU, Russia, China and India, even in the face of counter pressures from the United States.
In short, Saudi Arabia’s strong ties to the world’s major powers, along with its importance in the world’s oil markets, would likely spare it and its leadership from facing severe repercussions. Pakistan though might not be so fortunate. To be sure, Islamabad would stand to make some gains: a major financial windfall from its sale of nuclear weapons and the acquisition of a rich and strategically dependable ally that could provide Pakistan with an unprecedented degree of geostrategic and geo-economic autonomy. In the short term, however, the decision to supply Saudi Arabia with a nuclear arsenal would be far more fraught for Islamabad than for Riyadh.
Pakistan’s key regional ally, China, would likely be unhappy about this turn of events, but may eventually conclude that its geostrategic and geo-economic interests in Pakistan are just too great to be put at risk by a harsh diplomatic and/or economic response. On the other hand, the United States and, to a lesser extent, Israel would likely not take well to a clandestine nuclear weapon transfer from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia—especially if the plot is unraveled before the transfer is completed. The most dramatic response, in that case, would be a possible military interdiction. A less dramatic but more likely response would occur after the fact, with Washington deciding to raise the ante with Islamabad by asserting that this act of nuclear proliferation strikes against the vital interests of the United States. The United States could retaliate in a variety of ways, from cutting off aid to providing intelligence support to any punitive Indian military campaign. Less extreme options are plausible.
Overall, it is Pakistan, not Saudi Arabia, that is the weak link in this possible nuclear weapon proliferation conspiracy.
TO PULL off this bold nuclear maneuver, MbS would have to rely on secrecy and speed. There are multiple ways such a conspiracy of rapid nuclear proliferation could be detected by the intelligence communities of the United States, Israel, China, India and the EU. The world’s media outfits, ranging from traditional journalists to technically-competent operations such as Bellingcat, could acquire and release compromising information. Would both parties of this nuclear weapon transaction be warned off? By whom and by what threats or reassurances?
But if Riyadh and Islamabad managed to avoid discovery and were able to complete this hypothetical nuclear transaction, then they would deliver a major shock to the international security system.
Could the United States face a situation like the one above in the Middle East in the not-too-distant future? Although the scenario I have outlined is of low probability, its possibility is forecastable. The real question on the table is how seriously Washington should take this scenario and what actions should be taken to diminish the likelihood of it occurring. Failing that, Washington should be prepared to consider how it can take advantage of—or at least mitigate—the consequences of this potential crisis, should it arise.
Peter A. Wilson is an adjunct senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation and regularly conducts lectures on national security policy at the Eisenhower School, National Defense University.