A report (54-page PDF) from the Center for a New American Security (NCAS) think-tank takes a look at what steps Saudi Arabia might take if Iran rolls out atomic weaponry. Rather than ramping up its own nuclear weapons program, the report states, Saudi Arabia would instead focus on finding nuclear deterrents to prevent Iran from using such weapons to coerce behavior. The paper argues that it is in the interest of the United States to ensure that Saudi Arabia follows that path rather than, say, illicitly acquire a nuclear arsenal from Pakistan.
If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?
Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine
This report, the second in a series assessing the potential consequences of Iranian nuclearization, examines the likelihood that Saudi Arabia will pursue nuclear weapons if Tehran succeeds in its quest for the bomb. We argue that the prospects of Saudi “reactive proliferation” are lower than the conventional wisdom suggests but that this should not reduce Washington’s commitment to preventing the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran.
It is widely assumed that Saudi Arabia would respond to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by embarking on a crash program to develop their own bomb or by illicitly receiving nuclear weapons from its close ally Pakistan. If these options were not available, most analysts believe that the Saudis would be successful in securing a nuclear umbrella from Islamabad, including the possible deployment of Pakistani nuclear weapons on Saudi soil. These scenarios have been repeated so often in Washington and elsewhere that they have assumed a taken-for-granted quality.
Yet none of these outcomes represent the most likely Saudi response to a nuclear-armed Iran. The Saudis would be highly motivated to acquire some form of nuclear deterrent to counter an Iranian bomb. However, significant disincentives – including the prospect of worsening Saudi Arabia’s security environment, rupturing strategic ties with the United States, damaging the country’s international reputation and making the Kingdom the target of sanctions – would discourage a mad rush by Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons. And, in any case, Saudi Arabia lacks the technological and bureaucratic wherewithal to do so any time in the foreseeable future. Saudi Arabia is more likely to respond to Iranian nuclearization by continuing to bolster its conventional defenses against Iranian aggression while engaging in a long-term hedging strategy designed to improve civilian nuclear capabilities.
Thanks to the Saudi-US Relations Information Service (SUSRIS) for the pointer.