- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

A top Israeli intelligence official has charged that Saudi Arabia is pressing forward with a secret program to acquire nuclear-weapons technology from Pakistan, even as senior U.S. officials said yesterday they had seen “no information to substantiate” reports that a deal was in the works.

The Washington Times, citing a senior Pakistani source, reported yesterday that Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the country’s de facto ruler, concluded a long-rumored deal to obtain a nuclear deterrent in exchange for discounted Saudi oil during a visit to Islamabad over the weekend.

Such a deal would profoundly alter the balance of power in the Middle East, violate Saudi obligations under the nuclear NonProliferation Treaty, and break promises made to Washington by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf about controlling his country’s nuclear arsenal.

Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have strenuously denied the reports, with a Saudi Embassy spokesman dismissing the story yesterday as “not even worth a denial.”

Talat Waseem, press counselor to the Pakistani Embassy, said in a letter to The Times there was “not a shred of truth” to the “wildly speculative story.”

He denied the issue had been raised by President Bush or senior U.S. diplomats in their recent meetings with Pakistani leaders.

“While U.S.-Pakistan discussions cover a whole range of issues, including nonproliferation issues, nonproliferation is not an issue of current concern in our relations,” Mr. Waseem wrote.

“Pakistan’s commitment to nonproliferation of [weapons of mass destruction], including nuclear weapons, technology, materials, etc., is beyond question.”

But Israeli radio and the New York Post reported yesterday that Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi, the Israel Defense Force’s senior intelligence officer, told a parliamentary committee Tuesday that the Saudis had in fact gone to Islamabad with the intention of buying Pakistani warheads, to be placed on Saudi land-based missiles.

Gen. Zeevi said the Saudi drive for atomic weapons was motivated by the advanced nuclear program under way in Iran, its strategic and religious rival in the region. Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni Muslim while Iran has a Shi’ite Muslim majority.

Israeli officials have warned of an “Arab arms race” fueled by Iran’s nuclear programs, which could have serious strategic consequences for the Jewish state.

U.S. officials played down the revelations yesterday, saying stories of a Pakistani-Saudi nuclear alliance were more than a decade old.

“We’ve seen the allegation, but we have not seen any information to substantiate what would seem to us to be rather bald assertions” of a nuclear pact, said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.

“We are confident that Pakistan clearly understands our concerns regarding proliferation of nuclear technology. And we would also note that Saudi Arabia is a party to the nuclear NonProliferation Treaty, under which it has agreed not to obtain nuclear weapons,” he said.

A second U.S. government official with access to intelligence information discounted the Saudi-Pakistani nuclear link as well.

“There have been rumors along these lines for years,” the official said, adding it is possible that the two governments have discussed nuclear cooperation.

“But we don’t have information to suggest that there is an agreement to that effect,” the official said.

But Mr. Ereli also said the administration has not yet confronted either country directly in light of the new revelations, saying U.S. officials regularly raise proliferation concerns in their frequent talks with Pakistani counterparts.

Analysts said Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have much to gain and much to lose from a nuclear cooperation pact.

Past stories of a deal have been fueled by extensive ties between the two Muslim countries, in particular as Pakistan has tested and built its nuclear arsenal. Many suspect the oil-rich Saudis of helping finance Pakistan’s purchases of nuclear technology from China and other sources.

The Saudi defense minister was given a rare tour of Pakistan’s highly restricted Kahuta uranium-enrichment and missile factory in 1999.

In addition to fears of a nuclear Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have watched with growing unease the increasingly close military ties between Israel and India.

Saudi defense officials in England this summer discussed the outlines of a strategic policy paper being considered at the most senior levels in Riyadh.

Among the options put forward in the paper: developing or purchasing a nuclear deterrent; allying with an existing nuclear power such as Pakistan; or pursuing the diplomatic route by pressing for a regional nuclear-free pact.

Bangladeshi military analyst M. Abdul Hafiz, writing in the Bangladesh Daily Star this week, said intense regional instability is the driving factor.

“There’s obviously a lot of restlessness in the Middle East today prompting and pushing the nations like Saudi Arabia to produce a nuclear deterrence,” he wrote.

But David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said he remained skeptical that an actual deal had been signed because of the immense repercussions for both countries.

“We know that senior Saudi officials are studying their options and sending signals, but to actually go through with this will bring down the wrath of the Americans on the Pakistanis and have huge negative implications for Saudi security as well,” he said.

Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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