Will The Saudis Go Nuclear?

Author:Wilson, Peter A.

Since the Trump administration's May 2017 decision to terminate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, many have speculated that the Islamic Republic of Iran will soon resume its nuclear weapons program in response to renewed U.S. unilateral financial and economic sanctions. Even so, the current conventional wisdom is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia--enjoying Washington's fulsome political and military support for its regional strategic objectives--will have little interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.

But what if that assumption is wrong? Under what circumstances might Saudi Arabia, currently being led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), conclude that the clandestine and rapid acquisition of a nuclear arsenal would help address the challenges the country faces? In the following pages, I outline how such a scenario would unfold and detail how governments would likely respond to the emergence of a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia.

It has been a basic U.S. assumption since the mid-1960s that powerful geostrategic friends and allies can be dissuaded from acquiring nuclear weapons so long as they feel secure as the result of an explicit or implicit U.S. extended deterrent against their enemies. The credibility of that commitment depends on both U.S. military forces serving as an instrument of credible extended deterrence and the political, economic and military support to the state in question. Although there has been no formal alliance between them, Washington and Riyadh have maintained a robust strategic partnership since the end of World War II. This partnership is based upon U.S. and European dependence on the free flow of petroleum out the Persian Gulf region at non-inflationary prices, along with Saudi Arabia's relative military inability to fully provide for its own national defense. Even though the Trump administration has taken an enhanced stance to shore up this partnership via substantial arms sales and a tough geostrategic posture toward Iran, MBS may still opt to pursue other options to enhance his country's national posture. This could occur due to the financial squeeze on the Saudi economy, faltering internal reform, a sense of regional encirclement by Iran, and an unwillingness of the United States and Israel to take decisive military action against Tehran.

From Riyadh's perspective, the regional geostrategic environment has deteriorated dramatically in recent years, with Tehran making strategic advances amidst the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. This has generated some anxiety over the prospect of Tehran, or a Shia-dominated Baghdad, stirring up significant domestic unrest in Shia-majority Bahrain and/or Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Recently, it seemed that the Syrian Civil War was headed toward a near-total victory by the Assad regime, despite continued U.S. military and political support for the quasi-independent state of Rojava in eastern Syria. This past winter, U.S. president Donald Trump decided to pull out the approximately two thousand troops locared in eastern Syria, thereby cementing the Assad regime's victory. That decision was partially reversed: a smaller U.S. presence, along with a French and British contingent, still remains. This continued military assistance to the Syrian Kurds and their local Syrian Arab allies ensures the de facto partition of Syria approximately along the Euphrates River.

This prospect of a nearly complete Assad regime victory has greatly alarmed Riyadh's ally of convenience, Israel. Jerusalem is now worried that Tehran will establish a quasi-state entity in southern Syria akin to the militant and militarily-competent Hezbollah that is now entrenched in Lebanon. Of great concern is the prospect that Tehran will succeed in deploying precision-guided rockets and mobile short-range ballistic missiles to menace Israel's military facilities and critical civilian infrastructure. The possibility has greatly heightened the likelihood that Jerusalem will launch a massive air and ground campaign into southern Syria with or without the tacit acquiescence of Assad's other major ally, the Russian Federation. Such a preventive intervention might spiral out of control and devolve into a full-scale regional war, with sustained Israeli air and missile strikes against strategic targets inside Iran.

Riyadh, in turn, might help Israel by opening an air corridor over northern Saudi Arabia to facilitate Israeli airstrikes. Tehran would likely then retaliate against Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council states that help Israel in this regard, striking back via strategic cyberattacks or by long-range precision-guided cruise and ballistic missiles. A conflict of this scale would greatly destabilize the global oil and gas markets, prompting the United States, the European Union (EU), China, Japan, South Korea and India to try to end the conflict as soon as possible. Washington's role in this conflict would likely be decisive in either encoutaging further military escalation or peacefully resolving the conflict. Given the presence and prominence of various Iran hawks in the senior levels of the Trump administration, it is...

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