Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is interviewed on '60 Minutes' by Norah O'Donnell. Photo: CBS 60 Minutes screen grab

When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS for short) meets US President Donald Trump in Washington on Tuesday (March 20), nuclear weapons will be high on the agenda.

MBS made sure of that when he said in a CBS “60 minutes” interview aired on Sunday, but in part released three days earlier, 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.”

The background is this: Saudi Arabia, to reduce its dependence on oil for electricity generation and free up more oil for exports, wants to build 16 nuclear power plants over the coming 20 to 25 years at a total price tag of over US$80 billion – and the Trump administration wants in on the deal. Negotiations on a US-Saudi nuclear agreement have been ongoing since at least last November. What makes the reported deal a dicey proposition is that the Saudis insist and the US apparently is willing to consider being “flexible” on uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent reactor fuel, the technological prerequisites of nuclear bomb-making capability.

The Saudis argue that restrictions on its future nuclear activities should be no more stringent than those imposed on Iran by the 2015 nuclear deal. As the country’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir put it on February 18 of this year at the Munich Security Conference, “Our objective is we want to have the same rights as other countries.”

The Trump administration for its part is concerned that Russia or China might run away with a Saudi deal if the US plays tough on nuclear proliferation. In early March, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry led a delegation in London to discuss the conditions of the potential Saudi deal, and reportedly “progress was made.”

Beyond economic considerations, of course, Donald Trump – no friend of the Iran nuclear deal and no longer constrained by ex-Secretary of State Tillerson’s opposition to cancelling it – may positively look upon the deterrent value of a deal that, in the words of MBS, will allow the Saudis to “follow suit as soon as possible” if Iran develops a bomb.

What such Trumpian deal-making crucially ignores is the not inconsiderable possibility of blowback: a future Saudi Arabia in turmoil and radical Islamists capable of seizing its nukes. It’s a longstanding US and other powers’ concern when it comes to Pakistan’s nuclear capability.

The Pakistan Arrangement

But whatever MBS and Donald Trump end up agreeing to or may be announcing on Tuesday, there’s a fair chance that the whole thing’s just a dog and pony show, an elaborate sideshow to divert attention from the actual military and strategic arrangements currently in place.

Saudi Arabia, going all the way back to the early 1970s, has been the major financier of the Pakistani nuclear bomb project initiated by former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In 1998, then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif informed the Saudis prior to the nuclear tests of May 28 and Saudi Arabia softened the UN sanctions imposed on Pakistan with generous aid. In May 1999, Saudi defense minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz visited the Kahuta Research Laboratories and he and Sharif were briefed there by German-educated scientist and father of the Pakistani bomb A. Q. Khan on the progress with nuclear devices.

Supporters of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan try to shake hands with him during a ceremony at the Rawalpindi high court in 2010. Photo: AFP

Ever since, it is widely assumed that an agreement exists between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that Pakistani nukes – long paid for many times over – could be transferred to Saudi Arabia on a moment’s notice in case of a crisis or may indeed already have been transferred on the basis a dual-key arrangement of control of nuclear warheads as long practiced by NATO, under which over 200 B61 US nuclear warheads are stationed in five NATO countries (including at Incirlik airbase in Turkey).

It is highly likely that not only have Pakistani nuclear warheads been stationed in Saudi Arabia for many years, but that the two countries have practiced their deployment and employment. There is the closest of collaboration between the Pakistani and Saudi air forces.

A Dongfeng 21 missile on a military parade in Beijing in 2015. Photo: CC BY-SA 4.0

In addition, Saudi Arabia since the 1980s is in possession of Chinese Donfeng 3 (Nato parlance CSS-2) and since 2007 of Donfeng 21 (CSS-5) intermediate range ballistic missiles. Both are nuclear capable; indeed, the older CSS-2 is ONLY of use for nuclear warheads as its circular error probability (CEP) is a large 300m, making it useless for close targeting required for conventional warheads.

Saudi Arabia HAS a nuclear retaliation capability against Iran (and, as they like to say, Israel) and is not in need of trying to develop nukes should the need arise as claimed by MBS.

In fact, Saudi Arabia has none of the infrastructure or materials science capability let alone the scientists to build nukes in a good long time.

Pakistani nukes on Chinese rockets will have to do the trick if needs arise.

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