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Pakistan rejects report about Saudi support for N-plan

Updated November 08, 2013

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— File Photo
— File Photo

ISLAMABAD, Nov 7: Pakistan has dismissed as “speculative, mischievous and baseless” a BBC report that Saudi Arabia has invested in its nuclear weapons projects. While rejecting the report, the foreign ministry adds: “Pakistan is a responsible nuclear weapon state with robust command and control structures and comprehensive export controls”.

The Saudi embassy in London has also issued a statement pointing out that the kingdom is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and has worked for a nuclear-free Middle East. According to the report, a variety of sources told BBC Newsnight that Saudi Arabia has invested in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons projects, and believes it could obtain atomic bombs at will.

The report said that a Nato decision-maker had told Mark Urban, the Diplomatic and Defence Editor of Newsnight, earlier this year that he had seen intelligence reports that ‘nuclear weapons allegedly made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are now sitting ready for delivery’.

Since 2009, when King Abdullah warned visiting US special envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross that if Iran crossed the threshold, “we will get nuclear weapons”, the kingdom has sent the Americans many signals of its intentions.

Gary Samore, until March 2013 US President Barack Obama’s counter-proliferation adviser, told Newsnight: “I do think that the Saudis believe that they have some understanding with Pakistan that, in extremis, they would have claim to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan.”

It has also been clear for many years that Saudi Arabia has given generous financial assistance to Pakistan’s defence sector, including, western experts allege, to its missile and nuclear labs.

Visits by the then Saudi defence minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz to the Pakistani nuclear research centre in 1999 and 2002 underlined the closeness of the defence relationship. Saudi officials noted that their country had signed the NPT and called for a nuclear-free Middle East, pointing to Israel’s possession of such weapons.

The fact that handing over atom bombs to a foreign government could create huge political difficulties for Pakistan, not least with the World Bank and other donors, added to scepticism about those early claims.

In Eating the Grass, his semi-official history of the Pakistani nuclear programme, Maj Gen Feroz Hassan Khan wrote that Prince Sultan’s visits to Pakistan’s atomic labs were not proof of an agreement between the two countries. But he acknowledged: “Saudi Arabia provided generous financial support to Pakistan that enabled the nuclear programme to continue.” The Saudis resented the removal of Saddam Hussein, had long been unhappy about US policy on Israel, and were growing increasingly concerned about the Iranian nuclear programme.

In the years that followed, diplomatic chatter about Saudi-Pakistan nuclear cooperation began to increase.

In 2007, the US mission in Riyadh noted they were being asked questions by Pakistani diplomats about US knowledge of “Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation”.

By the end of that decade Saudi princes and officials were giving explicit warnings of their intention to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran did.

Having warned the Americans in private for years, last year Saudi officials in Riyadh escalated it to a public warning, telling a journalist from the Times “it would be completely unacceptable to have Iran with a nuclear capability and not the kingdom”.

One senior Pakistani, speaking on background terms, confirmed the broad nature of the deal — probably unwritten — his country had reached with the kingdom and asked rhetorically “what did we think the Saudis were giving us all that money for? It wasn’t charity”.

As for the seriousness of the Saudi threat to make good on the deal, Simon Henderson, Director of the Global Gulf and Energy Policy Programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told BBC Newsnight: “The Saudis speak about Iran and nuclear matters very seriously. They don’t bluff on this issue.”

The US diplomatic thaw with Iran has touched deep insecurities in Riyadh, which fears that any deal to constrain Tehran’s nuclear programme would be ineffective.

The Pakistani foreign ministry has described the story as “speculative, mischievous and baseless”. It said: “Pakistan is a responsible nuclear weapon state with robust command and control structures and comprehensive export controls.”

The Saudi embassy in London has also issued a statement pointing out that the kingdom is a signatory to the NPT and has worked for a nuclear-free Middle East.

But it also points out that the UN’s “failure to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone is one of the reasons the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia rejected the offer of a seat on the UN Security Council”.