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How to respond to a new nuclear neighbor (who wants what you have)?

A brief look at Saudi Arabia.

The threat posed to the Western world by a nuclear Iran has been, and will continue to be, well documented. The purpose of this entry is not to rehash that topic, but to discuss the effect of a proliferating Iran another area.

The tenuous state of affairs which passes for “stability” in the turbulent region that is the modern Middle East has become even more so with the renewed pursuit of nuclear technology – and, likely, nuclear weapons – by Iran. While the area is no stranger to conventional warfare, the presence – and threat – of a nuclear power on their doorstep would be unsettling at least, and potentially deadly at worst, to each of the Middle Eastern nations (not simply to Israel, as erroneous conventional wisdom might suggest).

Let us use Saudi Arabia as our example, and pose this question for discussion: what nuclear strategy should Riyadh adopt to best ensure their nation’s security in the face of a resurgent Iranian nuclear threat?

The Kingdom’s geopolitical and geostrategic setting demonstrates the reason for its security concern. Saudi Arabia, the largest country in the Middle East in land area, has a smaller population than that of Iran and of Iraq (though its population doubled between 1980 and 2004); it also controls 25% of the world’s known oil reserves.

Absent of outside protective alliances, this situation makes Saudi inherently vulnerable to the desire of its more populous neighbors – at the moment, Iran, rather than a non-unified Iraq – for more resources and, thus, for more income. Of all of the nations in the region, Iran may be most in need of the additional oil which the enormous Saudi fields (led by their largest oil field, Gharwar), and superior drilling and refining technology, can provide, as their oil revenues are falling 10-12% annually, due both to outdated equipment for harvesting crude oil (making it more expensive to recover the oil from the ground), and to the drying up of foreign investments in the Iranian economy in response to the state’s rogue attitude toward nuclear proliferation.

Iran has more reason than just oil to be a threat to Saudi Arabia. In a division not fully understood by the West (save, perhaps, the Catholics and Protestants of turbulent Northern Ireland, or, increasingly, to those paying close attention to the current sectarian violence in Iran), the Sunni (85% of Muslims worldwide) and Shi’a (89% of Iran’s population) sects of Islam are irreconcilably – and violently – opposed to each other. A hotbed of institutionalized Wahabbist Islam, and the original homeland of the Sunni Al Qaeda terrorist network, Saudi Arabia is at odds with the Imami Shi'ites of Iran in some key doctrinal areas, such as the Imami belief that the lost “Twelfth Imam” will return only upon the descent of the world into war and crisis – a belief which has caused some to suggest that a nuclear Iran could use that technology to spark a regional conflagration in hopes of summoning the so-called “Twelfth Imam” (a form of messianic figure to Imami Shiites).

Furthermore, ancient history must be taken into account – specifically, the quest for empire which has been a characteristic of the Persian population since nearly one thousand years before Christ. Though empires, and classical imperialism, appear to be a feature solely reserved for the past, history can, and generally will, serve not as an exact guide, but as a precedent for present and future actions – and, in the case of Iran, there has been repeated precedent set of a quest for Empire (most detailed for us in the writings of Herodotus, whose history of the Greeks’ Persian Wars is a preeminent work of Classical literature.

Given these reasons for worry about Iran, it seems natural that Saudi Arabia would seek to counter the current Persian nuclear proliferation policy – which not only threatens their security directly, but also could prompt a nuclear arms race in the region – by establishing a nuclear program of their own. However, except for possibly deterring an invasion by conventional forces, the possession of a nuclear arsenal – or even a latent nuclear capability, like Japan’s in the Far East – would do little to increase the actual security of the Saudi kingdom. The leaders of Saudi Arabia appear to recognize this, and have denied any interest in developing their own reciprocal nuclear program.

There are two major reasons why the use of nuclear weapons on Saudi Arabia by Iran is an unlikely prospect. The first, and far less compelling of the two, is the long-term damage to the area which would result from the use of radioactive weaponry. The second, a geopolitical reason (or “georeligious,” to unofficially coin a term), is that Saudi Arabia is home to both Mecca and Medina, two of the Holy Cities of Islam. While capturing these locations from the Sunni Arabs, and placing them under Shiite Persian control, could be an appealing idea to the leaders of Iran, the best means of achieving this would not be through the use of nuclear weapons, but by means of conventional invasion and occupation.

The slim reality of the Iranian nuclear threat to the security of Saudi Arabia, combined with the time necessary to successfully construct a nuclear weapons program (though, with reciprocal aid from Pakistan, that time might be far briefer than it would be for a nation beginning from scratch), means that the Kingdom can benefit as much – if not more – from relying on its existing alliances, and perhaps from forging new ones – as well as from using the economic weapons at its disposal – than it can from violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), to which it is a signatory (as are Iran, Iraq, and every other state in the Middle East save Israel, but that is a different matter).

Economically, the Kingdom is even now flexing its muscles a bit, unilaterally increasing production (and thereby driving down oil prices to the tune of a 17% decrease in "the past few months") while steadfastly refusing to acquiesce to calls for a special meeting of OPEC. Riyadh is able to do this without damaging its own economy (while simultaneously crippling that of Iran) because, due to advantages in availability and technology, the Saudis can recover, refine, and distribute oil for under 20% of what it costs Iran to do so. (Iran, in fact, is a net importer of gasoline.) As NBC news has reported:
[Saudi Arabia,] other Sunni-dominated oil producing countries and the U.S. are working together, believing it will hurt majority-Shiite Iran economically and create a domestic crisis for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose popularity at home is on the wane. The traders also believe (with good reason) that the U.S. is trying to tighten the screws on Iran financially at the same time the Saudis are reducing the Islamic Republic’s oil revenues.

For the Saudis, who fear Iran’s religious, geopolitical and nuclear aspirations, the decision to lower the price of oil has a number of benefits, the biggest being to deprive Iran of hard currency. It also may create unrest in a country that is its rival on a number of levels and permits the Saudis to show the U.S. that military action may not be necessary.

Strategically, the best ally that Saudi Arabia has in its quest for nuclear deterrence against Iran is the United States. As the source of 13.1% of America’s annual oil imports, and a strategic ally in the region, the Kingdom’s survival, and relative stability, is of great value to the world’s superpower. With a relationship which has been said to be “like a marriage from which there is no divorce,” America’s promise of security, and of potential nuclear reprisal should there be a strike carried out, can provide Riyadh with a sufficient indirect defense apparatus that the decision to continue on the course of nonproliferation can be sensibly, and comfortably, made.
To echo the conclusion drawn by Bahgat, “US commitments to defend Saudi Arabia against external threats are solid and are not likely to weaken in the foreseeable future. The American-Saudi unofficial alliance is built on shared interests, not common values. Saudi oil is crucial to the prosperity of the American and world economies, and oil is projected to remain the main source of energy in the next few decades.”

Due to the aforementioned external and internal factors, Saudi Arabia would be best served responding to the potentially increased threat from a nuclear Iran not by implementing a nuclear program of its own, but by continuing to rely on the reciprocity offered by existing alliances with external powers which can better serve to protect the Kingdom from attack, and to deter enemies from considering such action.


Bahgat, Gawdat. “Nuclear Proliferation: The Case of Saudi Arabia.” Middle East Journal. Vol. 60: Issue 3. 2006: 421-443.

Bozorgmehr, Najmeh and Roula Khalaf. “Iran admits oil projects suffering.” Financial Times. December 2006.

Energy Information Administration. “U.S. Imports by Country of Origin.” 2006.

Meyer, Stephen M. The Dynamics of Nuclear Proliferation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1983: 1-43.

Von Heyking, John. “Iran’s President and the Politics of the Twelfth Imam.” Ashland, Ohio: Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. November 2005.

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