Nawaf Obaid: Saudi Arabia Is Preparing Itself In Case Iran Develops Nuclear Weapons

The below article from National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Distinguished International Affairs Fellow Dr. Nawaf Obaid was published by The Telegraph on June 29, 2015. In addition to his position at the National Council, Dr. Obaid is a Visiting Fellow and Associate Instructor at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs as well as a Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. The views expressed are his own.

Read via The Telegraph

Saudi Arabia is preparing itself in case Iran develops nuclear weapons

By Dr. Nawaf Obaid

June 29, 2015

(The Telegraph) As the June 30 deadline approaches for the P5+1 – a group of nations including the US, Russia and China – and Iran to complete a nuclear agreement, all signs seem to be pointing to the fact that Britain alongside the US and France seem to be caving in on some of their long-standing central demands. Foremost among these is that Iran must be transparent about the “possible military dimensions” (PMDs) of its nuclear program.

This means that the ultimate agreement could leave open the potential for Iran to weaponize its nuclear program and acquire and then possibly deploy a nuclear weapon. Such a scenario represents a state of extreme danger to multiple nations, but few more so than Saudi Arabia, which has long been Iran’s primary opponent in the Middle East power balance.

Saudi Arabia has for past several years been laying the groundwork for a civil nuclear program with no PMDs. However, there is a strong possibility that the Kingdom might begin to engage in contingency planning for a defensive nuclear program with PMDs. This planning represents an emerging Saudi nuclear defence doctrine.

As the US and the UK continue to strategically withdraw from the Middle East after decades of financial and human loss that has led to few tangible gains and in fact brought turmoil to numerous countries in the region, the Saudis are alone in determining how to best defend themselves. Possessing a thoroughly planned and fully conceptualized nuclear defence doctrine is thus a matter of necessity in the face of changing geopolitical realities.

This emerging doctrine is based on two fundamental pillars. First, in order to produce a nuclear program with PMDs, a fully operative domestic civil nuclear program must be in place, and the Kingdom has in fact been working on the foundations of such a program for years. When the late King Abdullah decided to pursue a comprehensive national civil nuclear program, he established the King Abdullah Atomic Energy City (KACARE) that centralized all nuclear related research in Saudi Arabia. At KACARE, Saudi nuclear scientists have already carried out the strategic planning on a nuclear program, and plans are in place to spend around $80 billion over the next twenty years to build about sixteen nuclear power reactors.

The second fundamental pillar of the doctrine is that the addition of PMDs to the Saudi nuclear program would be carried out for purely defensive reasons. For years, the Kingdom has been the primary leader in pushing for a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Free Zone in the Middle East. It has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, the Saudis have to face the reality that all the numerous attempts to keep the Middle East free of WMDs have failed. Israel’s nuclear weapons program being the prime example of this failed policy. Therefore, if they must develop a defensive weaponized nuclear program in order to protect themselves and their allies, they will do so.

None should doubt that the Saudi scientific community possesses the know-how and technical infrastructure to realize this nuclear defense doctrine. Saudi nuclear physicists have received PhDs from Harvard, MIT, Oxford and other top American and British universities and have been conducting advanced nuclear physics research for years. Further, through the Kingdom’s $2 billion a year foreign scholarship program (there are currently about 15,000 students in the UK alone), numerous future Saudi nuclear physicists are being trained.

The plans for an indigenous program capable of using established methods of producing plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) are already in place, and several Saudi nuclear scientists have earned their PhD’s researching new forms of civil nuclear technology. In short, foundational work is well underway at KACARE to realize the three essentials to producing HEU: a nuclear fuel fabrication supply chain, the manufacture of centrifuges and related technologies, and the storage of fuel and centrifuges in various stages of usability.

Finally, there are those who feel that the nuclear agreement being considered between Iran and the P5+1 adequately prevents Iran from quickly weaponizing its nuclear program. This is pure speculation based on difficult calculations regarding several issues: the number and type of installed, operable centrifuges Iran is allowed to maintain, its inventory of enriched uranium, the level of inspection access, and enhanced intelligence and compliance enforcement. Iran’s current timeframe for acquiring enough HEU to make a nuclear bomb is around 2 to 3 months, but the US and France (with Britain of course) are attempting to push that to one year, which they feel is enough time to detect an Iranian so-called “mad dash” to weaponization.

Given that the proposed agreement allows Iran to maintain 5,060 centrifuges dedicated to enriching uranium, and that the nation has a long history of fettering inspections, intelligence and enforcement attempts, it seems highly unlikely that the P5+1 will be able to garner a deal that will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon relatively quickly.

In order for Saudi Arabia to implement its nuclear defense doctrine, it needs the capability to produce HEU, the skills to add PMDs to that nuclear program, and the advanced deliverable systems onto which nuclear warheads can be placed. It now possesses all three of these elements. With Iran now on the precipice of being allowed to develop nuclear weapons, an emerging nuclear defense doctrine is seen by the Saudi leadership as absolutely necessary to carry out their most important mission: the defense of the realm. Any nation facing a similar predicament would undoubtedly pursue the same path.