Arab rulers were not listening when U.S. President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen declared last week that a Middle East nuclear arms race must be prevented. With the Saudis leading the pack, they were too busy working on their response to the evolving Iranian nuclear threat, which they see no world power curbing.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources, as far back as the fall of 2009, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia decided the oil kingdom had better make its own arrangements and develop an independent program as fast as possible against the day that Iran attains its goal of a nuclear weapon.
On Tuesday, April 13, when President Obama warned the 47 world leaders attending his nuclear security summit that the biggest threat facing the United States and the world was a nuclear-armed terrorist organization or loner, the heads of the Saudi royal family were getting down to the nuts and bolts of their own military nuclear program. Assuming Iran was already in possession of the materials and components for assembling a bomb, the Saudis set aside funding to speed the program and reach the finishing line as soon as possible after Iran. Riyadh would then counter-balance Tehran as a nuclear power.
This decision was a victory for Saudi Arabia's pro-nuclear hawks, defense minister Prince Sultan, who has fought for an independent Saudi nuclear capability since late 2005, and foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who is against Riyadh's dependence on external nuclear protectors, like the US or Pakistan.
Obama promises to help Saudi nuclear program
Our sources in Washington say President Obama was not unaware of Riyadh's decision. The king made sure to keep him au fait of his plans by sending the director of Saudi General Intelligence Prince Muqrin Bin Abdul Aziz to Washington at the head of the Saudi delegation to the nuclear security conference last week.
Muqrin briefed the US president and assured him that King Abdullah stood by his promise to Secretary Gates – when they talked at the royal ranch outside Riyadh on March 10 – to continue to coordinate Saudi nuclear policy with the United States on the basis of a four-point understanding:
1. U.S. assistance will be extended to the Saudi nuclear weapons program. The principle was established, but our sources report that Washington and Riyadh are still working on its nature, substance and scope and are not yet agreed on an acceptable format.
2. When a small Saudi nuclear arsenal is in hand, the United States will provide missiles and aircraft as vehicles for their delivery. The Saudi arsenal contains only an outdated, inaccurate CSS-2 medium-range ballistic missile system purchased from China in 1986, which was not designed to carry a nuclear warhead more than 1,500 miles.
The Obama administration showed it meant business by staging the launch of a Trident ballistic missile, which is capable of carrying fissile nuclear warheads, from an American submarine in Saudi territorial waters in the last week of March.
(See the DEBKA-Net-Weekly 439 of April 2, 2010: US Spreads Nuclear Umbrella over Saudi Gulf).
3. Washington will help Saudi Arabia shroud its program in ambiguity, as it does for Israel.
4. Intelligence-sharing between the US and Saudi Arabia will ensure that no Gulf or Arab nation other than Saudi Arabia acquires nuclear hardware. The Saudi program will frustrate Tehran's ambition to become the supreme nuclear power representing Middle East Shiites and Sunnis combined by stepping forward as the sole Arab-Sunni power.
Plans for ambiguity, evading IAEA inspections
None of these plans deterred Prince Muqrin from standing up before the nuclear summit and calling for "a Middle East region that should be free from all weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons."
With regard to Iran, the Saudi prince stated: "Our brothers in Iran should be aware of the danger of the situation and deal with it very seriously. If they do not have anything to hide regarding their nuclear program, they should give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the opportunity to inspect their program and demonstrate it is for peaceful purposes."
He thus laid out the future Saudi position, apparently endorsed by Washington, that its military nuclear facilities will not be open to IAEA inspection as long as Tehran denies international monitors full access.
In Riyadh, the official Saudi Gazette, Sunday, April 18, published a royal decree by King Abdullah, Custodian of the two Holy Mosques, establishing a scientific center for civilian nuclear and renewable energy to meet rising demand for power and desalinated water. It will be called the King Abdullah City of Atomic and Renewable Energy.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources point out that this grand title refers in practice to a cluster of scientific institutes with the tasks of coordinating national nuclear research and acting as a repository for nuclear talent.
This is exactly what Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did in 2005. After the newly elected president promised supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to oversee Iran's development of a nuclear bomb, he set about reorganizing Iran's nuclear energy agency. By separating the covert military program from civilian projects, he enabled Tehran to claim to this day that its nuclear program is peaceful. In fact, the civilian agency serves the bomb program as its research mainspring and skilled manpower pool. It also provides the experts for analyzing the plans and blueprints for the military facilities' projects and is there to repair technical glitches.
Riyadh has adopted Iran's nuclear infrastructure format for its own program.
The King and defense establishment hold executive control
The Royal Decree includes appointments.
Dr. Hashem Bin Abdullah Yamani is named the president of the King Abdullah City of Atomic and Renewable Energy; Dr. Walid Bin Hussein Abu Al-Faraj, vice-president, and Dr. Khaled Bin Muhammad Al-Sulaiman vice-president for Renewable Energy Affairs.
The City's goal is defined as contributing to "sustainable development in the Kingdom by using science, research and industry-related renewable atomic energy for peaceful purposes."
The concluding sentence is: "The City will support scientific research and development" – the same sort of catchall measure used by the Iranians for permitting civilian research organizations to furnish their military program with scientific and research support, including manpower.
The king himself has undertaken to directly oversee the new center in his name.
This is made clear in his decree, which assigns the King Abdullah City of Atomic and Renewable Energy the status of an independent legal entity administratively linked to the prime minister (who in Saudi Arabia is the reigning monarch). Its headquarters will be located in Riyadh with branches, offices and research centers within the Kingdom.
The City will also represent the Kingdom at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other relevant organizations.
The nascent nuclear organization will have a supreme council headed by the prime minister and most of his cabinet, the deputy premier, defense and aviation minister and inspector general, as well as the ministers for foreign affairs, higher education, petroleum and mineral resources, finance, commerce and industry, water and electricity, agriculture and health.
Links with Washington will go through Bahrain
There is no hint of any separate military program – except for the figure who is to be directly responsible to the royal house, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, assistant minister of defense and aviation for military affairs, and the son of Crown Prince Sultan.
Sunday, April 18, the day after the king issued his Royal Decree, Abdullah accompanied by Princes Saud al-Faisal and Muqrin paid a two day visit to the Bahraini ruler Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa – the first since Abdullah ascended the throne in Riyadh in 2005.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that this visit was closely tied to Saudi Arabia's nuclear plans and understandings with Washington. Abdullah used the occasion to announce that Saudi Arabia is donating 2 billion riyals ($266.6 million) to build a medical city in Bahrain.
According to our sources, the medical city will be the back-door channel for Saudi military nuclear liaison with US military headquarters in the Persian Gulf.