Could the Iran Deal Drive Saudi Arabia to Go Nuclear?

Riyadh has good reason to be concerned about what the deal with Tehran will mean, and its response may not be good for regional stability.

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In this May 7, 2015 file photo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman at the Royal Court, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Credit: AP

The official Saudi Arabian news agency issued a positive, albeit cautious, response to the deal reached by the major powers with Iran. The wording was similar to Saudi King Salman's statement to U.S. President Barack Obama in the latter's telephone call after the agreement was signed: “Saudi Arabia supports any agreement that guarantees preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” Even if the royal house chose not to criticize the agreement publicly, as Israel does, its actions are likely to indicate its dissatisfaction regarding the agreement's implications. This may include pursuing its own nuclear ambitions.

In addition to the agreement's technical nitty gritty, the kingdom fears that the deal could signal the beginning of an Iranian-American rapprochement at the expense of its own relationship with the United States. Riyadh is concerned that the deal will enable Iran to maintain its basic nuclear capabilities while increasing its influence in the Middle East, unless resolute countermeasures are taken by the U.S. to counter it. Furthermore, there is a risk that criticizing the Iranian regime over its internal conduct and especially in the regional theater, where Iran has been involved in subversion for years, will bring Iran to violate the agreement.

American sources insist on separating the nuclear question from regional issues, but the internal conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are liable to become hostage to the Iran agreement. In other words, countries, led by the United States, might be deterred from pursuing policies opposed to Iranian interests, out of concern that Iran will disavow its side of the agreement and renew forbidden nuclear activity.

Amid the international campaign against the Islamic State, for many Iran has won the status of a  responsible player. The Saudis fear the United States may reward Iran for its concessions in the agreement by granting it more freedom of action, both to realize its political goals in the Middle East and to thwart processes that do not serve those goals. At the same time, the lifting of sanctions will give Iran resources to enhance its regional influence, rendering it less economically vulnerable and capable of pursuing its goals more aggressively.

Even before the agreement with Iran was reached, its broad outlines were well-known, which helps explain why Saudi Arabia made contingency plans to keep pace with Iran. Riyadh has accelerated its own civilian nuclear development in recent years to ensure that the Kingdom can match any nuclear capabilities Iran is now allowed to maintain as part of its nuclear deal with world powers. The kingdom declared its civilian nuclear intentions as early as 2006, and since then has considered nuclear technology for a range of purposes. It announced a massive nuclear program at an estimated cost of more than $100 billion, and has signed a series of nuclear cooperation agreements with countries including Russia, Argentina, China, South Korea and France.

Given the deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia will seek a response, even if partial, to the Iranian threat. Its first choice would be American security guarantees. However, even if the United States provides security guarantees to Saudi Arabia – which it has thus far refrained from doing – it is doubtful whether the kingdom will regard that as sufficient. It may also demand the region be nuclear free. In this context, the agreement with Iran may put Israel’s nuclear program on the agenda again. The kingdom’s concern that it could find itself on its own, facing a stronger Iran, may push it to want to have nuclear options available. "If the Iranians and Israelis have it, we would have to have it to," said Jamal Khashoggi, head of a Saudi news channel. More than any other player in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has a strategic motive and the economic capability to do this.

Current Saudi policy is based on the presumption that its right to enrich uranium should be recognized, as in Tehran's case. Developing a nuclear program including the ability to enrich uranium would be only a long-term option for Saudi Arabia, due to the kingdom's current lack of knowledge and facilities. From Riyadh’s point of view, however, the agreement with Iran gives it 10 years of Iranian nuclear restraint, and in this time, the kingdom will be able to choose from various nuclear options permitted under the NPT.

In order to develop a civilian nuclear program, the kingdom will likely seek to partner with countries including Pakistan, with which the kingdom has close defense relations. Differences have emerged recently between Riyadh and Islamabad regarding the war in Yemen, but if Pakistan becomes convinced that its ally – which not only financed a large part of its nuclear program but provides the country with significant economic aid – needs long-term assistance to build an enrichment facility, it would help, even if unofficially.

Because the process of building independent nuclear capability is prolonged and demanding, the kingdom must find a medium-term response to cope with the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear status. One such possibility is that Saudi Arabia may ask Pakistan to station its own nuclear warheads on Saudi  territory as sort of an extended deterrent arrangement, should Iran openly build a bomb. And even if Saudi Arabia’s path to nuclear capability is not guaranteed, its very presence in the arms race is liable to set in motion various processes with negative consequences for regional stability in general, and for Israel in particular.

Yoel Guzansky is a senior research fellow in the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University and former Iran Coordinator in Israel’s National Security Council.