Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister would neither confirm nor deny the potential purchase of a nuclear weapon from Pakistan recently, leaving one of the Middle East’s greatest security questions unanswered.
Foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir remained coy Thursday when a CNN reporter asked him if his country had plans to buy a nuclear weapon from Pakistan. Speculation as to whether or not Saudi Arabia would purchase a nuclear weapon from fellow Sunni Muslim ally Pakistan has been rampant since the negotiations, and eventual agreement, on Iran’s nuclear program occurred in 2015.
“I am not going to get into details of discussions we have with foreign governments, and certainly not allied governments. I’m sure you understand,” said Jubeir in response to the question Thursday, “I would not discuss these things in a public forum, certainly not on television.”
Jubeir’s response follows Tuesday remarks made by Secretary of State John Kerry that any purchase of a nuclear weapon from Pakistan by Saudi Arabia would have “all kinds of [Non-proliferation treaty] consequences. I mean, there are huge implications of that.”
The nuclear question has become part of an ongoing conflict between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, and it reached a fever pitch after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in the Iranian capital of Tehran. The embassy assault came as a result of the execution of prominent Shia Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by the Saudi government.
Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif claimed in an interview with CNN today that “We [Iran] do not have a fight to pick with Saudi Arabia.”
Zarif claims that Iran and Saudi Arabia can co-exist peacefully in the Middle East, but noted that “unfortunately, the Saudis have had the illusion that backed by their Western allies, they could push Iran out of the equation in the region.”
Rumors of a Saudi nuclear purchase caught the public eye in May 2015 when the Sunday Times quoted an anonymous U.S. defense official as saying “the house of Saud has now made the strategic decision to move forward” to purchase a weapon “off-the-shelf” from Pakistan.
“The Sunni states will play tit-for-tat and keep up with Iranian nuclear developments. Once they achieve a nuclear energy level of development, if Iran creates moves to create a nuclear weapon, states like Saudi Arabia will move rapidly to do the same and may even consider working with their strong partners like Pakistan,” said former U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn in an interview in September 2015.
Speculation on Saudi Arabia’s nuclear desires started in the 1990’s when former Saudi diplomat Muhammad Khilewi leaked documents claiming that Saudi Arabia had been interested in nuclear weaponry since 1975. Khilewi also claimed in a 1998 interview that Saudi Arabia had invested millions of dollars in the Pakistani nuclear program under the assumption that there would be a sort of nuclear quid-pro-quo between the two countries.
While the “off-the-shelf” narrative has been popular, arms-control expert Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies believes that Saudi Arabia could be fully capable of developing a home-grown nuclear weapon. Lewis points to Saudi Arabia’s investment in peaceful nuclear research as evidence that it could pursue a domestic weapon.
“The fancy machine tools, materials, and components that were good enough to build the nuclear weapons of the 1970s are widely available now,” wrote Lewis in a June 2015 article for Foreign Policy, “The Saudis are clearly alarmed by the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. While I suspect that a lot of the talk about acquiring nuclear weapons is intended to make the United States focus on Saudi security concerns, it doesn’t help to dismiss Riyadh’s anxieties by mocking their educational system and ability to go nuclear.”
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