Eight months ago, in September 2009, US and Saudi intelligence were still figuring that Iran's Revolutionary Guards Al Qods Brigades was pouring funds, training and weapons to Yemen's Houthi rebellion – with whom fighting with government forces was then at its peak – in order to establish a Houthi Shiite Zaydi state and grab the northern Yemen district of Saada.
But then in October 2009, the two intelligence agencies tumbled to another conclusion: Iran's real ulterior motive for backing the Houthis was a plan to ride in on their backs to northern Yemen and take up a position just opposite the top-secret Saudi military nuclear facilities near Khamis Mushait in southwest Saudi Arabia.
This military city is located no more than 75 kilometers, an hour-and-a-half drive, from Houthi strongholds and centers in northern Yemen's Jebel al-Dukhan region.
So when in late October and early November 2009, Houthi attacks spilled over into Saudi territory, Riyadh hit back hard: Saudi Special Forces and Air Force, under the command of Prince Khaled bin Sultan, deputy defense minister and chief executive of the kingdom's nuclear arms program, invaded northern Yemen to dislodge Houthi forces from Saudi territory and crush them as a military force.
This was vital, because once the Houthis deepened their hold on the southern Saudi Shiite tribes of the Najran and Assir, their way would be clear to press forward towards Khamis Mushait and the Saudi nuclear facilities along with the Iranian agents embedded in their ranks.
Unprecedented secrecy shrouds Saudi nuclear projects
So secret is the Saudi nuclear program, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources, that the extreme focus on the Iranian nuclear program in the West and the Arab world has left no room to conjure up its existence – let alone the peril it faced in consequence of the civil conflict in the Red Sea backwater of Yemen.
But the Iranians were on top of the game. They concluded that the Saudi nuclear drive was far enough advanced to compete with their own nuclear weaponization drive and place in question their primary strategic claim to be anointed the single reigning nuclear power of the Persian Gulf and Arab world.
To halt – or at least slow down – Saudi nuclear plans, Tehran put the Houthis up to invading southern Saudi Arabia and pushing on to Khamis Mushait, the while harassing the military traffic and activity in its vicinity.
By late January of this year, and even more so during the month of February, Washington and Riyadh were forced to acknowledge that Saudi armed forces, though equipped with and trained in superlative Western weaponry, were never going to defeat the Houthis or throw them out of the kingdom.
So they switched tactics and made the Yemeni rebels an offer: Half a billion dollars to stop fighting and pull their troops out of Saudi territory, so disarming the guns Iran was pointing at the Saudi nuclear program.
In Washington, meanwhile, a nuclear security summit opened and closed on April 13, without a murmur about the two burning nuclear terror issues of the day – the Al Qaeda-Taliban menace against Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and the Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia's top-secret nuclear facilities.
The Saudis have low-grade enriched uranium
The Saudi rulers established their nuclear center at the military city of Khamis Mushait because of its remoteness from oil centers and urban districts and because any foreigner or stranger turning up in this back-of-beyond region would immediately attract attention. So secret is every aspect of their nuclear weapons program, that even the personnel serving in the military sites of Khamis Mushait are mostly ignorant of its existence.
Nonetheless, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources have partly lifted the veil of secrecy and discovered that the Saudis have made progress in the following fields:
1. They have acquired an unknown quantity of low-grade enriched uranium – both homemade and from outside sources – that can be processed quite quickly to weapons grade (90 percent).
2. They have built a uranium enrichment facility at Khamis Mushait. We have no information about the number of centrifuges installed there or their origins.
3. Contrary to the prevailing notion in the West, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are not cooperating on their military programs; neither has Pakistani guaranteed the oil kingdom a nuclear umbrella. Islamabad is pushing ahead with its own nuclear programs and not sharing with Riyadh.
4. Like Iran and the Syria, Saudi nuclear planners are running two parallel weapons programs for producing both enriched uranium and plutonium.
Light water and heavy water plants planned
5. Riyadh's latest plans provide for the rapid construction of several nuclear reactors, including a light water plant for producing energy and a heavy water reactor for plutonium. The Saudis have earmarked funds for one light water reactor like the Iranian facility at Bushehr and a heavy water plant like Iran's Arak complex to be completed within three years at most.
6. The Saudi nuclear military program has also hired nuclear scientists from other Arab countries. Most of them are Egyptians once employed in the late Saddam Hussein's nuclear program or at Libya's nuclear facilities, which were dismantled in 2004 and handed over to the United States against a promise from the Bush administration not to invade Libya or try to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources presume that the Libyan ruler kept back copies of the blueprints for his atomic bombs and centrifuges and shared them with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who four or five years ago forwarded them to King Abdullah, giving the Saudi king his first substantial leg up the nuclear ladder.