Analysis: US, Sunni states talk about regional ‘nuclear umbrella’

US military considering deploying THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), an American anti-ballistic missile system.

John Kerry (L) walks with Saudi Arabia's FM Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud before meeting with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in Diriyah (photo credit: REUTERS)
John Kerry (L) walks with Saudi Arabia's FM Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud before meeting with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in Diriyah
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Coinciding with the snap visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry to Saudi Arabia this week, the US military is considering deploying one of its THAAD defense systems in the region.
Both moves are intended to lessen concerns expressed in the Gulf countries about Iran’s nuclear program and its increasing interventions in conflicts across the Middle East. Tehran’s direct and indirect involvement by its Shi’ite proxies is evident in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria.
THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) is an American anti-ballistic missile system. It is designed to intercept and “kill” medium- and long-range incoming ballistic missiles, including those which are carrying nuclear warheads.
In a sense, the idea to deploy THAAD in order to defend the Gulf emirates and Saudi Arabia from Iran practically means to offer them a “nuclear umbrella.”
It is also intended to minimize the chance that they would rush to develop nuclear weapons as an ultimate shield against Iran. One of the fears of the international community – Israel included – is that a nuclear Iran will trigger a nuclear race in the Middle East.
In the past, after concluding one of his negotiation rounds with his Iranian counterpart, Kerry would also travel to inform the Israeli prime minister of the situation. But this time he skipped the Jewish state, signaling the Obama administration’s anger with Benjamin Netanyahu’s collusion with the Republican Congress this week.
Over the years, some US administrations entertained the notion of signing a defense treaty with Israel, which would also place Israel under the US nuclear umbrella. But the idea, which was favored by prime minister David Ben-Gurion, was never seriously deliberated.
Eventually, according to foreign reports, it was Ben-Gurion who made the decision to make Israel a nuclear power and thus rely on its own nuclear umbrella.
Thirty years later, Israel, in a joint venture with the US, developed, produced and deployed its own equivalent to THAAD – the Arrow 2 and soon Arrow 3 anti-ballistic systems that are supposed to intercept and shoot long-range Iranian missiles with conventional, and in case it might have them in the future, nuclear warheads.
The possible of a regional nuclear arms race, remote as it may be seen at the moment, is especially worrisome when it comes to Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom has special strategic relations with Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons.
In the past, it was reported – though never officially confirmed – that Saudi Arabia partially financed Pakistan’s nuclear program. According to these reports, Pakistan in return promised to sell or deploy some of its nuclear bombs to Saudi Arabia should the regime of the House of Saud fear for the survival of the monarchy.
The idea to send THAAD to the Middle East, as well as to the Korean Peninsula, was raised on Wednesday by Gen. Vincent Brooks, head of US Army Pacific Command, who emphasized that no decision had been yet made. But, he added, “the need is there in those two places.”
The US Army has four operational THAAD batteries, and a fifth one is scheduled to undergo tests and training this year.
The United Arab Emirates already bought one THAAD system from manufacturer Martin Lockheed in 2011 for nearly $2 billion, but it will take more than a year until it will be fully operational.
The company hopes to sign two more such deals with Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the near future.
During his meetings with the local leaders, Kerry tried to assure them that the US is fully committed to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons.
“Nothing will be different the day after this agreement, if we reach one, with respect to any other issues that challenge us in this region, except we will have taken steps to guarantee that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon,” Kerry told reporters.