Mohammad bin Salman arrives in Downing Street, London, to meet Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, on March 7, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Simon Dawson

An innocuous news leak in the Pakistani newspaper The News on Monday has great bearing on the visit by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman to the United States. The report stopped just short of disclosing that Saudi Arabia is extending an extraordinary Balance of Payments loan to Pakistan to the tune of US$2 billion.

It is unlikely that the Trump administration made the effort to connect the dots. The political will is lacking. As Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky, two American scholars on the Middle East who served in the US state department ruefully noted at the weekend: “Not since Franklin D Roosevelt met Abdul Aziz bin Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state in 1945, has an American president seemed so smitten by Saudi royalty.”

The narrative in Washington is that Crown Prince MBS’ visit to the White House on Tuesday is all about a four-letter word – Iran. The discussions between Trump and MBS may play a critical role in the president’s next steps with regard to the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal.

MBS’ visit is taking place amid a publicity blitzkrieg handled by the best PR agencies in North America. The message, in capsule form, is that MBS represents a path of modernization in the Saudi kingdom. None other than the veteran US diplomat Dennis Ross has argued that “Saudi Arabia is clearly undergoing a revolution from above, one that is not only seeking to change the character of the Saudi economy but also the social mores of the country and its society. The Saudi National Transformation Plan represents a new model of modernization. As such, the US has a major stake in its success.”

The assumption is that MBS will be delighted if the Trump administration turns the screws on Iran’s nuclear program. But there is also another possibility: What if MBS hopes secretly that Iran retaliates to such moves by restarting its nuclear program?

What, in fact, is the actual Saudi game plan? MBS told CBS’ ’60 Minutes’ on the eve of his arrival in the US that “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” This seems a statement of a future policy, but on closer examination it is only the extension of Saudi Arabia’s existing, decades-old, nuclear policy.

Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible

Way back in 2003, a strategy paper under consideration at the highest levels in Riyadh got leaked. The paper outlined the imperative need for a nuclear option in response to a range of considerations: upheavals in the Middle East, Riyadh’s estrangement from Washington following the 9/11 attacks and the weakening of its reliance on the US nuclear umbrella, worries about an Iranian program, and the absence of any international pressure on Israel. The strategy paper set out three options: acquiring a nuclear capability as a deterrent; maintaining or entering into an alliance with an existing nuclear power that would offer protection; or trying to reach a regional agreement on having a nuclear-free Middle East.

Suffice to say, the assumption that Saudi Arabia might be content to remain under the US nuclear umbrella ceased to be valid a long time ago, far predating Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, the first Indian allegation regarding Saudi funding for Pakistan’s integrated atomic bomb project appeared in the late 1970s.

For the Reagan administration, though, the preoccupation in the 1980s was with another 4-letter word – USSR. History is repeating. Just as Reagan’s all-consuming passion was to fight the Soviet “evil empire,” Trump is determined to fight Iran. Just as Pakistan’s Zia ul-Haq was Reagan’s chosen ally in the 1980s, today for Trump it is MBS, his partner in the demolition of the JCPOA, aka the Iran Nuclear Deal.

In a weekend column entitled ‘The justification for a Saudi nuclear bomb,’ the prominent Saudi establishment commentator Abdulrahman Al-Rashed wrote with brutal frankness of MBS’ imminent arrival in the US: “The crown prince will have a difficult task convincing the Congress and various political forces in Washington; indeed, it is almost impossible that Washington would agree that Saudi Arabia builds its own nuclear weapon, since many countries oppose this move, including Israel. But the prince has linked it to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, so here we are dealing with the Pakistani scenario with India.”

Make no mistake, if Saudi Arabia forges ahead on the nuclear path, Turkey and Egypt will not be far behind

Interestingly, the media leak in Islamabad on Sunday mentioned that Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan and army chief General Qamar Bajwa had visited the “brotherly Muslim country” (Saudi Arabia) to conduct negotiations, which have been “successfully concluded.” General Bajwa has been in and out of Saudi Arabia in recent months and following his last trip in February Pakistan announced the deployment of a contingent of troops to the kingdom for unspecified purposes. It may also be factored in that Gen. Bajwa’s predecessor as army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, heads the Islamic Military Alliance created by the Saudi king last year with the hidden agenda of countering Iran.

The Trump administration is perilously close to creating the legacy of a nuclear weapon state in the Muslim Middle East. The fact that this will also signify the birth of an “Islamic bomb” makes it a potentially epic legacy for Trump. Make no mistake, if Saudi Arabia forges ahead on the nuclear path, Turkey and Egypt will not be far behind.

Trump’s dilemma is that, unlike in the Faustian deal between Reagan and Zia to bleed the Red Army in Afghanistan, MBS also happens to be a benefactor to the US military-industrial complex and Trump’s America First project. But the basic contradiction is that Iran could be the US’ natural partner in the Middle East.

The rational thing to do might be to press ahead with the shuttle diplomacy mission between Israel and Lebanon (for which, read Hezbollah) that the US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Satterfield has recently mounted.

At some point in a not-too-distant future, Satterfield’s mission is bound to enter the US-Israel-Iran triangle. Now, that is a door that has never been opened. But so long as the US does not normalize relations with Iran, its Middle Eastern policies will remain ineffectual. The time to do that is now, when the moderate-reformist Hassan Rouhani remains as president. If Trump can show sagacity with regard to Kim Jong-un, there is no conceivable reason why a constructive engagement with Rouhani is not possible.

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