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The Bomb: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan

by Pervez Hoodbhoy, 23 January 2012

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(This article was published in two parts in the Express Tribune on January 15, 2012 and on January 23rd, 2012.)

The waters of the Persian Gulf heated up sharply after Iran’s announcement last week that it is creating additional uranium enrichment facilities under a mountain, safe from airstrikes. Iran already has tens of thousands of centrifuges hidden deep underground in Natanz, and numerous other nuclear facilities around the country.

Iran has stood at the threshold to the Bomb for well over two years. In 2010 it had more than enough low enriched uranium (LEU, some 2,152 kilograms) to make its first bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium. Enhancement to the required quality could have been done in roughly 10 weeks if this LEU had been fed into the 4,186 centrifuges that it was then operating. But Iran furiously rejects allegations that it seeks the Bomb. It says the LEU is only for generating nuclear electricity.

America has probably guessed Iran’s intentions correctly. Why would Iran, a major exporter of gas and oil - but with very limited natural uranium resources - be willing to put its life on the line simply for the sake of nuclear electricity? During this American election year, things could boil over. Presidential aspirants are competing to out-macho one another over fighting a new war with Iran. President Obama, who retreated from his earlier promise for a Palestinian state, may now bow again before America’s pro-Israel lobby. He has announced new financial and commercial sanctions on companies dealing with Iran. The EU will decide this month whether to cooperate with the US and ban Iran’s oil exports.

But America’s moral position - and the tactics it uses to dissuade Iran - are morally indefensible. The US has given the green light to Israel’s campaign of secret assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, injection of the Stuxnet virus, and periodically threatens to bomb Iran. While Iran has not attacked any other country in centuries, the United States overthrew Iran’s democracy in 1953 and installed a dictator who ensured that American corporations would have a near monopoly over Iranian oil. It supplied weapons to Saddam Hussain in his war against Iran, put Iran on the "axis of evil", falsely blamed it for 9/11, flies drones over Iran, imposed sanctions, and provocatively sends its aircraft carriers up and down the Persian Gulf.

In my opinion, Iran’s quest for the bomb does it - and the world - no service. The world needs less nukes, not more. Yet, given the regime’s obstinate insistence, there appear to be only two possible outcomes. Continuing on its present path, Iran will likely become the world’s 10th nuclear state over the next few years. Bad as this would be, it would not be terrible. In all likelihood Iran would then moderate its dangerous rhetoric and, like other existing global nuclear rivalries, this one too could be managed.

On the other hand, an Israeli attack - whether aided or not by the US - would be truly terrible. The Middle East would become a permanent war zone. The third Gulf War would surely devastate Iran. But today it is in a position to inflict much greater damage on the US than were Iraq or Libya. The US would plunge into an economic crisis the likes of which it has not seen before. The last bits of its post-withdrawal strategy from Afghanistan would be shredded to pieces.

What about Pakistan? Where does it picture in a conflict shaping across its borders? In a country that is more anti-American than Iran, one would have expected overwhelming public and government support for Iran.

But Pakistan’s enthusiasm for Iran’s bomb has been subdued. The local media - which happily takes up anti-American causes - has been remarkably silent. Officially, Pakistan defends Iran’s right to nuclear technology. Further, as Iran acknowledges, Pakistan had secretly helped Iran’s nuclear weapon programme until the mid-1990s through the A Q Khan network. But, even at that time, voices within the Pakistani establishment spoke against giving nuclear support to Iran. US pressure was partly the reason but so was the discomfort with Iran, a Shi’ite state.

These suspicions were confirmed by confidential American cables revealed by Wikileaks. They detail Pakistan’s efforts to dissuade Iran from pursuing its weapons program. General Pervez Musharraf, prime minister Shaukat Aziz and foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri held at least seven meetings, whether face-to-face or by telephone, with the Iranians. There were 11 meetings with the Americans in 2006 alone. Pakistani officials also served as interlocutors between Iran and the US. Mr Kasuri provided a list of other reasons why Pakistan was so keen to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. "We are the only Muslim country [with such weapons]," he said, "and don’t want anyone else to get it."

Pakistan’s real dilemma comes not primarily because of America - with which it is now rapidly cutting off ties - but Saudi Arabia. It knows that if Iran chooses to cross the nuclear threshold, the Saudis would seek to follow suit. Pakistan would then have to choose sides between a Shia neighbour and a Sunni state that has been its benefactor. Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Sultan was on the mark when, speaking about Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, he said "It’s probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries".

The Saudi opposition to Iranian nuclear weapons is intense. Again, thanks to WikLleaks, it is now well known that that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had repeatedly urged the US to destroy Iran’s nuclear program and "cut off the head of the snake" by launching military strikes. Last June, the influential former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador in London and Washington, Prince Turki bin Faisal, spoke to an audience from the British and American military and security community at Molesworth air force base in England where he described "Iran as a paper tiger with steel claws". He accused Iran of using these claws for its "meddling and destabilising efforts in countries with Shi’ite majorities". After saying that "in a certain sense, Saudi Arabia and Iran are uniquely positioned to be at odds", Faisal went on to warn that his country could embark on the path to nuclear weapons if Iran made them.

So what happens if Iran goes nuclear and Saudi Arabia wants to follow? What could be the Saudi path and what role is Pakistan likely to play?

Once upon a time Iran was Pakistan’s close ally — probably its closest one. In 1947, Iran was the first to recognise the newly independent Pakistan. In the 1965 war with India, Pakistani fighter jets flew to Iranian bases in Zahedan and Mehrabad for protection and refuelling. Both countries were members of the US-led Seato and Cento defence pacts, Iran opened wide its universities to Pakistani students, and the Shah of Iran was considered Pakistan’s great friend and benefactor. Sometime around 1960, thousands of flag-waving school children lined the streets of Karachi to greet him. I was one of them.

The friendship has soured, replaced by low-level hostility and suspicion. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomenei’s Islamic revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, set major realignments in motion. As Iran exited the US orbit, Pakistan joined the Americans to fight the Soviets. With Saudi money, they together created and armed the hyper-religious Pashtun mujahideen. Iran too supported the mujahideen — but those of the Tajik Northern Alliance. But as religion assumed centrality in matters of state in both Pakistan and Iran, doctrinal rifts widened.

These rifts are likely to widen as the US prepares for its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Iranians cannot forget that in 1996, following the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan, the Taliban took over Kabul and began a selective killing of Shias. This was followed by a massacre of more than 5,000 Shias in Bamiyan province. Iran soon amassed 300,000 troops at the Afghan border and threatened to attack the Pakistan-supported Taliban government. Today, Iran accuses Pakistan of harbouring terrorist anti-Iran groups like Jundullah on its soil and freely allowing Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and its associates to ravage Pakistan’s Shia minority. Symptomatic of the grassroot-level change, Farsi is no longer taught in Pakistani schools.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s footprint in Pakistan has grown steadily since the early 1970s. Pakistani leaders, political and military, frequently travel to the Kingdom to pay homage or seek refuge. The dependency on Saudi money grew. After India had tested its Bomb in May 1998 and Pakistan was mulling over the appropriate response, the Kingdom’s grant of 50,000 barrels of free oil a day helped Pakistan decide in favour of a tit-for-tat response and cushioned the impact of sanctions subsequently imposed by the US and Europe. The Saudi defence minister, Prince Sultan, was a VIP guest at Kahuta, where he toured its nuclear and missile facilities just before the tests. Years earlier Benazir Bhutto, the then serving prime minister, had been denied entry.

The quid pro quo for the Kingdom’s oil largesse has been soldiers, airmen, and military expertise. Saudi officers are trained at Pakistan’s national defence colleges. The Pakistan Air Force, with a high degree of professional training, helped create the Royal Saudi Air Force and Pakistani pilots flew combat missions against South Yemen in the 1970s. Saudi Arabia is said to have purchased ballistic missiles produced in Pakistan.

So what happens if Iran goes nuclear, and Saudi Arabia wants to follow?

For all its wealth, Saudi Arabia does not have the technical and scientific base to create a nuclear infrastructure. Too weak to defend itself and too rich to be left alone, the country has always been surrounded by those who eye its wealth. It has many universities staffed by highly paid expatriates and tens of thousands of Saudi students have been sent to universities overseas. But because of an ideological attitude unsuited to the acquisition of modern scientific skills, there has been little success in producing a significant number of accomplished Saudi engineers and scientists.

Perforce, Saudi Arabia will turn to Pakistan for nuclear help. This does not mean outright transfer of nuclear weapons by Pakistan to Saudi Arabia. One cannot put credence on rumours that the Saudis have purchased nuclear warheads stocked at Kamra air force base, to be flown out at the opportune time. Surely, this would certainly lead to extreme reaction from the US and Europe, with no support offered by China or Russia. Moreover, even if a few weapons were smuggled out, Saudi Arabia could not claim to have them. Thus they could not serve as a nuclear deterrent.

Instead, the Kingdom’s route to nuclear weapons is likely to be circuitous, beginning with the acquisition of nuclear reactors for electricity generation. The spent fuel from reactors can be processed for plutonium. Like Iran, it will have to find creative ways by which to skirt around the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – which forbids reprocessing spent fuel. But it doubtless takes heart from the fact that the US forgave India for its nuclear testing in 1998, and eventually ended rewarding it with a nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia had unwillingly signed on to the NPT in 1988. Its position then was that it would be happy to sign up but only if Israel did the same. That, of course, never happened. But Saudi Arabia had no option but to follow the US diktat.

The Kingdom’s first steps towards making nuclear weapons are being contemplated. In June 2011, it said that 16 nuclear reactors were to be built over the next 20 years at a cost of more than $300 billion, each reactor costing around $7 billion. Arrangements are being made to offer the project for international bidding and the winning company should “satisfy the Kingdom’s needs for modern technology”. To create, run and maintain the resulting nuclear infrastructure will require importing large numbers of technical workers. Some will be brought over from western countries, as well as Russia and former Soviet Union countries.

But Saudi Arabia will likely find engineering and scientific skills from Pakistan particularly desirable. Since many are Sunni Muslims, the Pakistanis would presumably be sympathetic with the Kingdom’s larger goals. Having been in the business of producing nuclear weapons for nearly 30 years under difficult circumstances, they would also be familiar with supplier chains for hard-to-get items needed in a weapons programme. And because salaries in Saudi Arabia far exceed those in Pakistan, many qualified people could well ask for leave from their parent institutions at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, Kahuta Research Laboratories, and National Development Complex.

Good sense dictates that Iran stops its pursuit of the Bomb. But whether it does or not, Pakistan should stay out of the Iran-Saudi nuclear rivalry. Over and above all this, Israel and the United States must stop threatening to bomb Iran.

The writer Pervez Hoodbhoy currently teaches physics and political science at LUMS (Lahore). He taught at Quaid-i-Azam University for 36 years and was head of the physics department. He received a doctorate in nuclear physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

P.S.

The above two part article from The Express Tribune is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.