One of the arguments most often raised against the emerging Iran nuclear deal is that it will prompt a proliferation cascade in the region. For years I have worried that if Iran got too close to being able to produce nuclear weapons it would stimulate a similar effort by Saudi Arabia, which in turn might encourage Egypt and others to follow suit. Seven years ago I put out a strategic dossier addressing this issue: Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran.

Concern about the cascade effect is also one of the reasons I support the comprehensive agreement now on the table. Without limitations on Iran’s enrichment programme and the intrusive verification designed to detect, and therefore deter, clandestine enrichment, the proliferation stimulus would be sharper and quicker.

An American critic of the deal who recently spoke in London erroneously claimed that the current interest in nuclear technology in the Middle East is sparked by concerns about US President Obama’s policies toward Iran and the region. As detailed in my dossier, the fact is that between February 2006 and January 2007, 13 countries in the Middle East announced new or revived plans to pursue nuclear energy. It is hard to blame Obama, who at that point had not even announced his presidential candidacy.

True, the Saudis have gone beyond what they said in 2006 about interest in nuclear energy.  In 2008, the kingdom signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States expressing its intent not to pursue uranium enrichment. Now the Saudis also want whatever nuclear technology Iran has, meaning enrichment.

Wanting enrichment is a far cry from possessing it, however. How would the Saudis acquire enrichment technology? Their nascent nuclear industry is at a rudimentary stage. They have no facilities relating to enrichment and no known research programme or specialists in this field. Developing uranium enrichment on their own would take 15 years or more. If they really want to match Iran’s enrichment programme, they naturally would want to buy the technology, but who would sell it?

The 49 members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) have agreed not to transfer any nuclear technology that would contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There is no standard interpretation of this clause, but clearly it would apply to a Saudi enrichment programme that was initiated to contribute to a weapons option. Although the NSG guidelines are voluntary, the ‘non-proliferation principle’, as it is called, has become an entrenched norm. Any inclination to violate it would put the would-be exporter under intense international pressure.

Five nations that possess enrichment technology are outside the NSG: India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea. Iran obviously would not empower its Gulf rival in this way, and neither would Israel. India, which seeks NSG membership, prides itself on not allowing proliferation-sensitive exports and has strong reasons to keep its export record clean. North Korea may have no compunction against selling nuclear technology to any would-be buyer, but it has no connections with Saudi Arabia and every major intelligence agency is watching to ensure that none develop.

Pakistan is the usual suspect. It has close ties with Saudi Arabia and benefitted from Saudi munificence when its nuclear weapons programme was getting off the ground. Every couple of years a media scoop alleges that Pakistan is on the verge of transferring nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia. A thinly sourced article in the Sunday Times on 15 May was the latest in this line, claiming that Saudi Arabia has taken a ‘strategic decision’ to acquire ‘off-the-shelf’ nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Whatever the Saudis may have decided, however, a transfer requires a willing supplier. As I argued last year in my Adelphi book, Overcoming Pakistan’s Nuclear Dangers, Pakistan has strong strategic, political and economic incentives to keep its nuclear weapons to itself. Just as the Pakistanis resolutely refused Saudi Arabia’s request for aircraft and ground forces to support the Yemen intervention, so too they would refuse a nuclear weapons transfer.

Very little in the Sunday Times article is credible. Take this line, purportedly from a US intelligence official: ‘We know this stuff is available to them off the shelf’. The US intelligence community includes 17 separate agencies and over 800,000 US officials hold top-secret clearances. No doubt reporters can find at least one of them whom they can quote repeating what has been in previous press reports. But responsible intelligence officials do not speak that way. Those who know something about Pakistan’s nuclear programme know that it has no nuclear weapons ‘on the shelf’ waiting for delivery to Saudi Arabia. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is focused entirely on India.  Opening up a second front on its west by becoming involved in the Saudi–Iran dispute would be a strategic blunder.

The real danger is that Saudi money could lure Pakistani nuclear scientists to give it a head start on developing weapons technology. There is precedent: two retired Pakistani nuclear scientists met with al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan in August 2001 to discuss uranium enrichment and other aspects of weapons development. Following that revelation, the military’s Strategic Plans Division, which oversees Pakistan’s nuclear programme tightened its Personnel Reliability Programme to keep a close watch not just over currently serving nuclear scientists, but also those who are retired. Those with the most knowledge are kept on in advisory capacities, reducing any incentive to break away.

Few details about that watch programme are known publicly: how many retired scientists it covers, how they are monitored and how well the programme is funded, for example. I assume concerned governments are quietly asking these questions. When Pakistani officials are asked about the Saudi-related allegations, they flatly deny any chance of a nuclear transfer. I trust their intentions, but it would be good to know that the monitoring programme is robustly implemented, with redundant controls.

Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme.

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