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Rediff.com  » News » What lies behind Saudi-Pak nuclear weapons cooperation

What lies behind Saudi-Pak nuclear weapons cooperation

November 18, 2013 10:39 IST

Hatf VThe Saudi-Pakistan nuclear weapons cooperation is meant to sound alarm bells in Washington, reminding the Obama administration that its overtures to Iran would have serious negative consequences in terms of its ties with its closest allies in the region, says Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad. Exclusive to Rediff.com

On November 6, BBC's Newsnight programme broke the sensational news that Saudi Arabia, which had invested substantially in Pakistan's nuclear weapons projects, would be able to obtain nuclear weapons 'at will' from Pakistan, possibly even before Iran had perfected its own capabilities.

The news report quoted a source in Israeli military intelligence and a NATO source to support its assertions. The NATO source said that weapons were in fact ready for delivery, while the Israeli source said the Saudis, sensing progress in the Iranian weapons programme, 'will go to Pakistan and bring what they need to bring'.

Within a day, this report was dismissed by the founding father of Pakistan's nuclear programme, A Q Khan, who denied that Pakistan had reached a secret deal to provide nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia.

He pointed out that neither Pakistan nor Saudi Arabia had anything to gain from this transaction. The Pakistani Foreign Office dismissed the allegations as 'baseless,' being supported in this by former ISI chief, Lieutenant General Hamid Gul.

A close scrutiny of the BBC report makes it clear that the principal source for it is Israel and some elements of its lobby in Washington. First, the timing: The report emerged when Iran's dialogue with the P5+1 had just commenced, and there was every possibility of progress.

Israel, of course, has been totally opposed to the recent US-Iran 'detente': It has over the years gained substantial support from large sections of the US political establishment to which it has projected Iran's nuclear ambitions as an 'existential threat'.

In fact, the pro-Israel lobby has over several years worked closely with the American right-wing, particularly in the Republican party, to scuttle any attempt at a US-Iran understanding.

However, the situation now is much more complex. Israel's anti-Iran posture finds a favourable echo in Saudi Arabia.

,p>Since the advent of the Arab Spring nearly three years ago, Saudi Arabia, fearing the prospect of political reform in Bahrain (which could resonate across the region), has demonised Iran, accusing it of 'interference' in the affairs of the Arab Gulf States in pursuit of 'Persian' hegemony and the promotion of its sectarian interests.

In the face of the Iranian challenge, Saudi Arabia had abandoned its traditional quietist and moderate approach to foreign affairs and has adopted an aggressive and strident posture, challenging Iran bilaterally and across different theatres in West Asia.

The principal conflict between these two Islamic giants is now taking place in Syria. A regime change in that country would snap its strategic links with Iran which would cut off Iran's outreach to the Mediterranean and deny it access to the lifeline supporting the Hezbollah; the latter would obviously serve Israel's security interests as well.

Hence, till just before the Presidents Rouhani-Obama rapprochement in September, a formidable anti-Iran alliance encompassing Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States had been set up. This alliance has received a jolt from the US defection and the prospect of nuclear and strategic accommodation between the US and Iran.

Reports relating to the Saudi-Pak nuclear weapons cooperation have to be seen in this background. They are meant to sound alarm bells in Washington, reminding the Obama administration that its overtures to the Islamic republic would have serious negative consequences in terms of its ties with its closest allies in the region, particularly with Saudi Arabia dramatically moving away from the US embrace to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan and thus change the regional strategic scenario fundamentally.

However, beyond the ringing of these alarm bells in Washington, there is not much substance in the news reports. Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme has emerged from its strategic ties with China, and its delivery systems have come from North Korea.

While Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States were close allies through the 'global jihad' in Afghanistan in the 1980s, there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia funded the Pakistani weapons programme, which was in fact developed with the full knowledge of the United States.

Again, in spite of sporadic reports from dubious sources, there is no evidence of a Pakistani commitment that to ship these weapons to Saudi Arabia in the event of a so-called 'Shia-bomb' being developed in Iran.

Pakistan has its own complex ties with the United States which have weathered serious differences between them from time to time. Given the strategic value of these ties in the context of Pakistan's ongoing confrontation with India, it is unlikely that Pakistan would take any action that would seriously jeopardise its links with the US.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia and the United States also have ties that are solidly founded on mutual interests: the United States is the sole hegemonic power that guarantees the security of the region, facilitates the steady flow of oil and ensures the continued rule of the traditional monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The Kingdom and the United States are allies, but obviously there are important areas where they have differences. They had become quite estranged at the time of the 9/11 attacks which had involved at least 15 Saudi nationals, but the logic of mutual interests had ensured that they came together fairly quickly.

Later, Saudi Arabia had counselled against the US assault on Iraq, since regime change there would bring a Shia regime to power and potentially enhance Iran's strategic capabilities in the region, but soon accommodated itself to US interests.

More recently, after the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia has three specific grievances with the United States: That it allowed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to be deposed; that it did not give fulsome support to the military coup led by General Al Sisi, and that it did not lead an air assault on Syria to depose the Assad regime.

As if these concerns were not enough, Saudi Arabia is watching with deep dissatisfaction the steady progress being made in Iran's ties with the US on the nuclear issue. The nightmare scenario for the Kingdom is a US-Iranian 'grand bargain' in terms of which they would accommodate each other's interests across the Gulf and West Asia, which would leave Iran as the paramount power in the region.

Saudi Arabia signalled its unhappiness with the US by refusing to speak at the UN General Assembly and refusing to take its hard-won seat at the Security Council, uncharacteristic expressions of surly petulance!

Just as Saudi Arabia's expectations from the US were exaggerated and unrealistic, so too are its fears. It is quite unlikely that the US and Iran will strike a grand bargain or that the US will abandon its allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia: Far too many mutual interests, supported by powerful lobbies, are involved in these ties.

What is in fact more likely is that Saudi Arabia, which for most of the last 20 years has actually had good working relations with Iran, will in the near future work towards rebuilding its relations with the Islamic Republic.

The mindless bloodletting in Syria, with no prospect of a clear victory for any side, should make it clear to the two countries that the sectarian divide and their aggressive rivalry do not serve their interests, and that the best option for them is regional stability based on rapprochement and mutual accommodation.

Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad, a distinguished diplomat, is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Image: The medium range ballistic missile Hatf V being test-fired in Pakistan, November 28, 2012. Photograph: Reuters

Talmiz Ahmad