December 19, 2010

Implications of Iran going nuclear : Saudi, Pak moves need to be watched

Implications of Iran going nuclear
Saudi, Pak moves need to be watched
by D. Suba Chandran

ONE of the WikiLeaks revelations presents the note which the American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia prepared for Hillary Clinton during her visit in February 2010. The note talks about the Saudi Arabian fear of the failure of dialogue with Iran on nuclear weapons, and the King’s nuclear ambitions to protect his own interests.

According to the note prepared by Ambassador James Smith for Ms Clinton, “The King is convinced that the current U.S. engagement efforts with Tehran will not succeed; he is likely to feel grimly vindicated in his view by Ahmadinejad’s February 11 boast that having successfully enriched uranium to a level of 20 per cent, Iran “is now a nuclear nation”...The King told General Jones that if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.”

Will Saudi Arabia wait till Iran goes overtly nuclear, or will it have already started preparing for that eventuality? This is where one has to analyse Saudi Arabia’s options in terms of looking for nuclear deterrence. Clearly, the King has three options - to develop a nuclear weapons programme for Saudi Arabia; buy nuclear weapons and delivery systems from other countries (perhaps Pakistan); and to ask for a nuclear guarantee (either from the US or Pakistan).

There have been news reports detailing the linkages between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan on nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Saudi Arabia has already established a nuclear power programme. During April this year, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz through a royal decree created the “King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE)” in Riyadh. Clearly, Saudi Arabia has started its march towards a nuclear programme.

The focus of this analysis, however, is not on Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme, but on the nature of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence in case there is an understanding between Islamabad and Riyadh on a nuclear guarantee or umbrella. In this case, if Iran goes nuclear, or if Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are convinced that Iran has a nuclear weapons programme, will the primary objective of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence remain India-specific?

As of now, there is a widespread belief that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme -fissile materials, weapons, delivery mechanisms and the nuclear strategy/doctrine — is purely India-specific. Will it continue to remain India-specific if the Iran and Saudi factors need to be taken into account?

Will Pakistan be willing to extend its arsenal and doctrines to provide a nuclear umbrella to Saudi Arabia and perhaps some other countries in the Gulf which fear Iran? Reports have it that there is already a secret agreement between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, reached sometime during 2003. Perhaps true; perhaps not.

What needs to be analysed in this context is, what if Pakistan decides to extend the nuclear deterrence to include Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf against a nuclear Iran? Three specific issues need to be analysed here. First, political relations between Iran and Pakistan; it is an open secret that Islamabad and Tehran have their own differences vis-à-vis each other, which got exacerbated since the late 1970s. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 and Zia’s Islamisation (in reality “Sunnisation”) have created a Sunni-Shia rift within Pakistan, which has increased the tensions between the two countries. To make matters worse, since the 1980s there has been an additional vigour in the Saudi-Wahabi influence in Pakistan, further vitiating the anti-Shia campaign by the sectarian organisations in Pakistan. As a result, for the last three decades, despite efforts, the political relationship between the two countries remains strained. Thus, there is no incentive for Islamabad for remaining neutral in case of an open nuclear tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The lines are already drawn and Pakistan has chosen its sides.

The only exception was the A.Q. Khan network, which helped Iran’s nuclear programme. To be fair to A.Q. Khan, his network was completely secular and was beyond any national boundaries. It was purely an economic enterprise, which looked beyond Sunni-Shia, Iran-Pakistan and Iran-Saudi Arabia calculations! Hence, Khan’s assistance to Iran’s nuclear programme should not be considered as a factor in Islamabad’s nuclear decision-making process vis-à-vis Tehran.

Second, how is Pakistan’s relationship likely to build in the next couple of years vis-à-vis Iran in terms of Islamabad’s growing influence and presence in Afghanistan? Again, it is an open secret that Islamabad is backing the Taliban to reach some kind of an agreement with President Karzai to expand its influence in Afghanistan in a post-American exit environment. Pakistan has already signed a trade and transit agreement with Afghanistan, besides concluding another agreement on gas recently with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. Clearly, Pakistan has well positioned itself now to impose its stooges in Kabul and convert Afghanistan into its strategic backyard. Will Iran remain a mute spectator? One is likely to see an increased hostility between Islamabad and Tehran as a result of their strategic rivalry in Afghanistan.

Third, as a result of the above two issues, Pakistan is unlikely to remain unaffected in the Iran-Saudi Arabia nuclear diad. This is bound to become a triangle relationship, creating an arch of nuclear instability in the entire Middle-East. It is a different question and issue altogether if Isreal jumps into it; but for the purpose of this argument, the focus is only on the triangle. Pakistan has a history of proliferation; hence there is no reason to believe that Islamabad has not already made a deal with Saudi Arabia. In fact, there are also reports claiming the sale of Ghauri missiles to Saudi Arabia. Neither the Pakistan-Iran relations nor Islamabad’s past history of proliferation makes one feel confident that Pakistan is unlikely to work with Saudi Arabia and provide nuclear weapons or just an umbrella.

What needs to be analysed here is how this will affect Pakistan’s calculations towards its fissile materials, nuclear weapons and delivery mechanisms. It is believed that Pakistan has an adequate fissile material stockpile today to make approximately 100-plus nuclear weapons. However, this is unlikely to remain at this level if the Iran-Saudi Arabia-Pakistan nuclear triangle needs to be taken into account. In this case, Pakistan’s deterrence will not be based only against the Indian stockpile and weapons. Therefore, Pakistan’s “minimum” is unlikely to remain minimum.

Now, what are the likely implications of the above scenario?

First, Pakistan is unlikely to accept the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty for its stockpile is not likely to remain focused on India alone. Thus, Obama will see his vision for nuclear disarmament breaking into pieces, in his own life time.

Second, the nature of Pakistan’s arsenal then will be dependent on Iran’s stockpile and Saudi Arabia’s requirement. And this will be anything but minimum. Therefore, one could visualise a different calculation of India’s “minimum” as well. Whatever may the nature of these calculations, it is easy to conclude that the credible deterrence in South Asia is unlikely to remain minimum.

Third, the above triangle will also result in Sunni and Shia nuclear bombs, infusing a different argument into the old concept of an Islamic bomb. This in turn, will further increase the distance between Islamabad and Tehran besides vitiating the minds of the Shias and Sunnis inside Pakistan.

The writer is Deputy Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.


Anonymous said...

Iran would not go nuclear overtly in first place being fully aware of the Shia-Sunni fault-lines within the gulf region. Iran is not interested in threatening its Gulf neighbors but is challenging the American and Israeli presence in the region. Iran will play a nuclear brinkmanship with West by being a defiant player and at the same time will pursue high level diplomacy with its Arab neighbors as it did in last GCC summit. It would be foolish on part of GCC countries to equate Iranian nuclear defiance with actual capability and thus contemplating nuclear umbrella which will freeze the all the possible channels of peace in the region.

Jonathan Scherck said...

re. your speculation on the king's "three options", it would be much improved with mention of China's involvement in the kingdom's ballistic missile program--into its 3rd decade now.