In an unusual article appearing Sunday, April 16, in the Saudi newspaper published in London, Sharq al-Awsat, one of its leading writers, Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, urges Saudi Arabia and Egypt to develop a nuclear weapons capability to meet the Iranian threat.
The article casts doubt on the West being able to halt Iran’s nuclear armament. It is therefore up to the two key Arab nations to produce a nuclear deterrent against Iran and Israel alike. There is no other way, the writer argues. The West will just have to understand and accept this, in the same way as Pakistan’s nuclear program was accepted as a deterrent against the Indian bomb. Until a short time ago, Saudi Arabia did not perceive a nuclear weapon as an option, but now, as Iran gets close to its target, time is getting short for converting to a new approach on the balance of deterrence.
This article represents a striking departure from the views appearing in the rest of the Saudi press on the Iranian nuclear issue and the traditional official line, which favors a diplomatic solution of the crisis.
It could not have appeared in print unless instigated by a very senior Saudi high-up with an agenda to put across – whether an effort to break new ground on Riyadh’s approach to Iran’s advance to a nuclear weapon, or a means of convincing the West of the need to let the Saudis develop an independent nuclear military program to counter Iran’s ambitions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources identify this Saudi high-up almost certainly as the defense minister, Crown Prince Sultan, or a member of his Sudairi clique, which owns a controlling interest in Sharq al-Awsat.
His message to Washington is simple: if you can’t stop the Iranian dash for a nuclear bomb, then you have no option but to set up a nuclear counterweight.
One of the most telling phrases in the article is this:
Based on this formula of balance, what if Riyadh, as representative of the Gulf region, mounted a nuclear weapon facing Iran? Would this be enough? Here, Egypt will demand the same thing, taking into consideration that it is a central state in the region and is important in the military balance with Iran and Israel as well.
That is to say, Saudi Arab would rather not go solo as the only Arab state adopting the nuclear option, but prefers the company of Egypt.
The timing of publication is also significant.
It appeared on the day of Prince Sultan’s arrival in Pakistan, in the course of a trip that took him also to Japan and Singapore. Interestingly, King Abdullah‘s visited Islamabad in January. The question as to what did Sultan discuss with Pakistani leaders so soon after the King is answered, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, by the controversy which has flared between the two top Saudi princes. The newspaper article was meant to win points in the argument, which centers not on the need for a Saudi nuclear program, but on the form it should take and under whose authority.
An external umbrella versus home production
King Abdullah in Islamabad discussed the possibility of Pakistan providing a nuclear umbrella to counter the Iranian threat (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 249 of April 7: Secret Uranium Enrichment – With a Helping Hand from Pakistan).
Crown Prince Sultan, on the other hand, turned the discussion round to Pakistani assistance for developing a nuclear military program in Saudi Arabia.
Upon his return to Riyadh on April 18, Sultan called a news conference to reiterate the official Saudi opposition to nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East.
He was less clear on the question of his government’s response to the Iranian threat.
However, our sources have learned that, in closed meetings in Tokyo, the crown prince emphasized that the development of an independent nuclear weapons program was a matter of survival for the oil kingdom.
Since Abdullah was crowned king in August 2005, this is the first overt dispute between the king and the defense minister – and it has broken out over a cardinal issue. Spats have flared often between the king and members of the Sudairi branch of the royal family, mainly over the order of succession, but Sultan usually stayed in the wings, keeping his powder dry for cardinal issues of state.
Such a one is determining the shape of the Saudi nuclear program.
Another matter that Sultan is preparing to fight for is his demand to amalgamate the two main armed forces of the kingdom, the military, which he has headed for more than forty years, and the National Guard, Abdullah’s almost private army for the same length of time.
The king is adamantly against a merger.
The issue sharpened recently when Abdullah proposed to equip the National Guard with its own air force, a step fiercely resisted by Sultan, for fear it would detract from the importance of the national air force under his command.
The dispute over the nuclear issue likewise has a systemic dimension. It would fall most naturally under the aegis of the military, raising Sultan to extra stature and influence compared with the king, whereas an external nuclear umbrella would be controlled by Abdullah.
In an important respect, the solution to the controversy lies in American hands, as acknowledged by the writer, Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed:
…we know that there is no option to deal with Iran, which is armed with nuclear weapons, except through the same balance of terror, which guarded the situation among Moscow, Beijing, and the West, and now between Karachi and New Delhi. We also know that the Pakistanis could not have developed, produced, and maintained their weapon had the West not accepted this in reply to the Indian nuclear weapon and as a deterrence to it.
This unusual means of addressing a diplomatic message appears to have been seized upon by the Saudi crown prince for addressing an appeal to Washington. His paths to the Bush administration seem to have been severely attenuated since his son, Prince Bandar, was succeeded as Saudi ambassador to Washington by Prince Turki al-Faisal, a close ally of Abdullah.