The fracas over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress has pushed aside a much-needed debate on the policy that US President Barack Obama has pursued on Iran. Sitting quietly on the sideline, but no less concerned than Israel about the emerging terms of a potential deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program, is Saudi Arabia.
An agreement that would leave Iran as a nuclear-threshold state – a “screw-turn” away from being a nuclear armed state – will prompt other countries in the region, chief among them Saudi Arabia, to match Iran’s threshold capability.
After the P5+1 global powers concluded a preliminary agreement with Iran in November 2013, Netanyahu blasted the agreement, while Saudi Arabia issued a carefully worded statement “cautiously welcoming” the deal. We can therefore sense the relief in Riyadh a year later when Iran and the world powers, again, didn’t meet the November 2014 deadline for an agreement.
The Saudis, who are closely following the negotiations, are worried that Iran is moving closer to receiving international recognition for its nuclear program.
Even if no final agreement is signed (the broad outlines are in place), the negotiations themselves have placed Saudi Arabia’s regional rival on a par with the world’s leading superpowers. And a possible deal would facilitate an increase in Iran’s power at its own expense.
The result: many in the Gulf “prefer no deal than a bad one,” in the words of an Arab official who has discussed Iran with the Obama administration and Saudi Arabia.
US Secretary of State John Kerry went to Riyadh earlier this month to try and assure Arab allies that Washington will work with them to counter Iranian influence in the region even if a deal is struck over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Kerry’s one-day visit to Riyadh underscores that Israel is not the only country in the Middle East leery of how a deal with Iran may upend the balance of power: “We see Iran involved in Syria and Lebanon and Yemen and Iraq and God knows where,” the Saudi foreign minister said. “This...
must stop if Iran is to be part of the solution of the region and not part of the problem.”
Before Kerry came to Riyadh, King Salman met Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a highly unusual and urgent public invitation that was linked to Pakistan’s – Riyadh’s most crucial ally and the only Muslim state to hold nuclear weapons – “strategic cooperation” with Saudi Arabia.
Thus, the Saudis might challenge any US-Iran diplomatic breakthrough, fearing that the US might make concessions to Iran or, alternatively, reward it for making concessions by giving Tehran a free hand in the region, to the Saudis’ detriment.
They also fear that whatever happens, Iran can emerge as a winner, since any agreement would mean recognition of the Islamic Republic as a nuclear-threshold state.
Saudi Arabia therefore wishes to keep pace with Iran, and has accelerated its nuclear and ballistic development in recent years – a move that undermines US non-proliferation endeavors.
While a deal with Iran is unlikely to immediately launch a full military nuclear development in Saudi Arabia, it may cause the latter to pursue a nuclear hedging strategy – building up nuclear infrastructure to keep future options open.
In 2011, Saudi Arabia announced its plan to build no less than 16 nuclear power plants at an estimated cost of more than $100 billion. This month, as part of the Saudis’ preparations for a nuclear deal with Iran, they quietly signed a nuclear-cooperation MOU with South Korea. The deal includes a study the feasibility of building two nuclear reactors worth $2 billion in the Arab country.
The danger created by civilian programs, of course, is that they can serve as a basis for the development of military programs, should political circumstances, threat perceptions and allies’ commitments change. Moreover, some of the most senior Saudi princes have in recent years stated that a military nuclear might is something the kingdom is obligated to examine if Tehran is granted the “right” to enrich uranium.
“I’ve always said whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same,” said Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the kingdom’s powerful former intelligence chief, two weeks ago. In other words: Saudi Arabia wants whatever Iran gets.
From Iran’s nuclear program to Syria’s future, the late Saudi King Abdullah, who initiated the nuclear program, found himself at odds with the current US administration.
Abdullah’s death earlier this year, and the ascension of his half-brother, Salman, will not alter Saudi core strategic interest.
“We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,” King Salman stated in a speech broadcast on state television hours after he became king.
He (reportedly) strongly urged President Obama in their meeting a few days later that “Iran not be allowed to build a nuclear bomb.”
The US should therefore provide the Saudis security guarantees in order to dissuade them from launching their own program. A likely consequence of a US-Iran deal is that Saudi Arabia will demand a similar agreement, so that it, too, will be a “screw-turn” away from being a nuclear armed state.
While reaching an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue is the US administration’s most important priority in the Middle East, that achievement, paradoxically, would increase rather than lower the probability of a Middle-Eastern arms race.
On the other hand, no deal would increase the likelihood of a war in the region, putting Saudi Arabia in the line of fire.The writer is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.