View from abroad: Saudi fears over Iran nuclear deal

Published May 18, 2015
King Salman of Saudi Arabia. — AFP
King Salman of Saudi Arabia. — AFP

I was twelve years old when I sailed to Genoa from Karachi with my mother and my two younger brothers to join my father who was then working for Unesco in Paris. Our Italian passenger ship, the Asia, took a day to pass through the Suez Canal.

Just a few months later, this passage was closed for over a year following the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in the wake of the Suez nationalisation by Nasser. Cargo ships piled up on both sides after the Egyptians sank vessels to block the waterway.

And this is a scenario that the Saudis most fear: a complete or partial blockade of the huge tankers carrying their oil around the world and keeping the royal family in the style it has grown so accustomed to. If you look at a map of the region, you will see that that there are three narrow channels available for Saudi oil exports: the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz off Iran, and the Bab al-Mandab off Yemen.

While the first is controlled by the Saudi client state of Egypt, the last two are vulnerable to closure by Iran, especially as the Houthis are close to seizing all of the port city of Aden. The United Arab Emirates are even more vulnerable as all their oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz.

This, then, is part of the background to the destructive bombing campaign launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies against the Houthis. But more important for the House of Saud is the need to check the expansion of Iranian influence. Currently, this extends from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq, through Iran and all the way to Yemen in a great arc that encompasses Saudi Arabia on three sides.

Compounding the kingdom’s strategic problems is the very real prospect of a final deal between Iran and the P5 + 1 countries (the US, the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) over its nuclear programme. This would see crippling sanctions on Iran lifted, and a resurgence of its oil-based economy.

In the zero-sum game being played between the Sunni and Shia regional powers, any increase in Iranian power and prestige would mean a setback for the Saudis. The kingdom has made its displeasure known to its American protectors, and the recent conference called by Obama was aimed at smoothing ruffled Arab feathers.

King Salman, while he did not attend personally, has declared that his country would match the level of uranium enrichment permitted to Iran under the agreement. This ambition would put Pakistan on the spot as it is the only available source of the technology the Saudis would require.

Still suffering from the fallout of the AQ Khan proliferation scandal that tarnished our reputation irrevocably, we would find it hard to say no to the Saudis this time. While we sidestepped the Saudi demand to send troops to fight their war in Yemen, Riyadh is likely to be a lot more insistent this time around.

The reality is that while the science behind uranium enrichment on the way to making a bomb is fairly well known, the engineering challenges are formidable. And the Saudis, frankly, are not exactly renown for their scientific or engineering skills. Long used to buying arms — and everything else — off the shelf, they are unlikely to achieve a uranium enrichment cycle without a lot of help.

So expect to see many retired and active nuclear scientists and engineers from Pakistan making a beeline for the kingdom. Even then, it will not be plain sailing: many sources of clandestine materials and equipment needed are now under greater scrutiny than they were when Pakistan launched its covert nuclear programme. Unless, of course, Western countries choose to turn a blind eye to these activities, as well they might, given the kingdom’s favoured status.

But any Pakistani assistance for a Saudi nuclear programme would be strongly opposed by Iran. In fact, our fraught relations with our neighbour would come under great strain in such a scenario. Already, attacks on Iranian border guards by Pakistan-based Sunni terrorists have caused outrage in Tehran.

Thus far, the Americans have refused to agree to Saudi and UAE demands for a formal mutual security pact. Actually, I don’t see what is mutual about it as the thought of Arab armies springing to the defence of the United States is a bit ludicrous. So it’s entirely possible that Pakistan would be asked to provide a nuclear umbrella for the kingdom and the emirates.

But despite its fears of Iranian might, the fact is that Saudi Arabia outspends Iran five to one on its military. Decades of sanctions have taken a heavy toll on Iranian military hardware: its air force consists of antiquated aircraft bought from the United States by the Shah, while its army badly needs modern tanks. The navy, while it has numerous small, fast missile boats, is no match for the American Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain.

However, as we have seen in Syria and Iraq — and now in Yemen — while the Saudis are happy to send their jet fighters to pound foes who lack an air force, they are reluctant to put boots on the ground. Perhaps this is because the Saudi army is capable only of taking on local dissidents, and not highly motivated fighters from the self-styled Islamic State or the Houthis.

It is this weakness that makes the kingdom vulnerable to self-doubts as well as external threats. Despite its vast wealth, the ruling family is constantly insecure, fearing both internal uprising and the dangers posed by IS and Iran. These fears will only multiply if the nuclear deal is signed next month.

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2015

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