Saudi Arabia would probably not rush to acquire a nuclear weapon if Iran builds one, according to a new report by the Center for a New American Security. It is widely assumed that Riyadh would rush to develop its own bomb or acquire weapons from Pakistan. But the report argues that “risks of the worst-case Saudi proliferation scenarios are lower than many contend.” By pursuing nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would risk becoming a target of international sanctions and rupturing its strategic ties with the United States. Riyadh is more likely to bolster its conventional defenses and rely on the United States for its defense. The following are excerpts from the report, followed by a link to the full text at the end.
February 20, 2013
Conventional wisdom holds that the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran would spark an inevitable proliferation cascade across the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia the prime candidate to follow Iran into the nuclear club. It is widely believed that the Kingdom would be hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons; if Saudi Arabia proved unable to build the bomb itself, it would acquire nuclear weapons or a nuclear umbrella from Pakistan.
On all these counts, the conventional wisdom is probably wrong. Throughout the nuclear age, nuclear restraint has been the norm not the exception, and the Kingdom is not likely to buck this historical pattern. The Saudis would be highly motivated to acquire some form of nuclear deterrent to counter an Iranian bomb, but significant disincentives would weigh against a mad rush by Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons. In any case, they lack the technological and bureaucratic wherewithal to do so any time in the foreseeable future. Nor is Saudi Arabia likely to illicitly acquire operational nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Despite rumors of a clandestine nuclear deal, there are profound disincentives for Riyadh to acquire a bomb from Islamabad – and considerable, though typically ignored, reasons for Pakistan to avoid an illicit transfer. Instead, Saudi Arabia would likely pursue a more aggressive version of its current conventional defense and civilian nuclear hedging strategy while seeking out an external nuclear security guarantee from either Pakistan or the United States. And ultimately, a potential U.S. nuclear guarantee would likely prove more feasible and attractive to the Saudis than a Pakistani alternative.
Although this is the most likely outcome, it is neither inevitable nor a reason to be complacent about the regional consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran. The risks of the worst-case Saudi proliferation scenarios are lower than many contend, but they are not zero. Even a small risk of a poly-nuclear Middle East should be avoided. Moreover, the most likely means of preventing a future Saudi bomb involve external nuclear guarantees that are themselves costly and undesirable in many respects. For these reasons, Washington should continue to prioritize preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, even while taking steps to mitigate the worst outcomes
if prevention fails.
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