Is America Going to Have to Deal With Saudi Nukes Next?

The World
How It Works
Nov. 25 2013 10:48 AM

Fear of a Nuclear Saudi Arabia    

President Obama holds a meeting with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia at the White House on June 29, 2010.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasted no time in letting the world know what he thinks of the Iran nuclear deal, the other regional power most concerned about the deal, Saudi Arabia, has been conspicuous in its silence. The Saudi leadership had publicly urged the U.S. “not to succumb to the president of Iran's soft talk" in the runup to the deal and is almost certainly skeptical that the agreement reached will keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. So the question becomes, what are they going to do about it?

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

David Sanger of the New York Times notes that, Saudi leaders have been “hinting in vague asides that if the United States cannot roll back the Iranian program, it may be time for Saudi Arabia to move to Plan B — nuclear weapons of its own, presumably obtained from Pakistan, which entered the nuclear club on Saudi subsidies.” U.S. critics of the deal have been discussing this scenario as if it’s now a fait accompli.


The prospect of a nuclear Iran setting off a Middle East arms race has been a concern for a while now, and I’d say Riyadh has actually gone beyond “vague asides.” According to cables released by WikiLeaks, King Abdullah himself warned in 2008 that if Iran went nuclear, "everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia." Prince Turki al-Faisal made the threat more publicly in 2011.

President Obama himself suggested in a speech at AIPAC last year that “It is almost certain that others in the region would feel compelled to get their own nuclear weapon, triggering an arms race in one of the world’s most volatile regions.”

However, it’s worth keeping a few things in mind. First, as Steve Cook wrote last year, Saudi Arabia “has no nuclear facilities and no scientific infrastructure to support them,” so building a bomb from scratch could be a long and daunting process.

But what if Saudi Arabia simply bought itself a nuke? A BBC Newsnight report earlier this month suggested that “nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are now sitting ready for delivery” should the Saudis decide they want them.

In the midst of negotiations, the report seemed awfully conveniently timed to provide ammunition to the deal’s critics. Moreover, as Zachary Keck pointed out in the National Interest, Saudi interests aside, it’s not really clear what Pakistan would get out of this other than enraging its major source of military aid—the United States—as well as what it hopes will be a major energy supplier—Iran.

And while the U.S.-Saudi relationship is currently rockier than it’s been in a long time, Riyadh would likely think twice about blowing it up entirely. As an analysis from the Center for a New American Security argued in February:

[S]ignificant disincentives – including the prospect of worsening Saudi Arabia’s security environment, rupturing strategic ties with the United States, damaging the country’s international reputation and making the Kingdom the target of sanctions – would discourage a mad rush by Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons. And, in any case, Saudi Arabia lacks the technological and bureaucratic wherewithal to do so any time in the foreseeable future. Saudi Arabia is more likely to respond to Iranian nuclearization by continuing to bolster its conventional defenses against Iranian aggression while engaging in a long-term hedging strategy designed to improve civilian nuclear capabilities.

Thanks to the changing global energy picture, Saudi Arabia also no longer has the kind of leverage over U.S. foreign policy that it once enjoyed.

This doesn’t mean there’s no cause for concern. Even a slight chance of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East should be taken seriously. But without stronger evidence that this is more than just a hardball negotiating tactic from Saudi Arabia, I don’t think it doesn’t seem like a good reason not to cautiously proceed with Iran negotiations.      



The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?


Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Right of Free Speech
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Oct. 21 2014 12:05 PM Same-Sex Couples at Home With Themselves in 1980s America
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 4:14 PM Planet Money Uncovers One Surprising Reason the Internet Is Sexist
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.