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

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.      


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

There Are New Abuse Allegations Against Adrian Peterson

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

John Oliver Pleads for Scotland to Stay With the U.K.

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter


Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Here’s Why College Women Don’t Take Rape Allegations to the Police

The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 1:51 PM Here’s Why College Women Don’t Take Rape Allegations to the Police
  News & Politics
Sept. 15 2014 8:56 PM The Benghazi Whistleblower Who Might Have Revealed a Massive Scandal on his Poetry Blog
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
Sept. 15 2014 4:38 PM What Is Straight Ice Cream?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
Brow Beat
Sept. 15 2014 8:58 PM Lorde Does an Excellent Cover of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”
Future Tense
Sept. 15 2014 4:49 PM Cheetah Robot Is Now Wireless and Gallivanting on MIT’s Campus
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 15 2014 11:00 AM The Comet and the Cosmic Beehive
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.