American and international attention is focused on the nuclear weapons programs of the recent past in Iraq and Libya and of the present in North Korea and Iran. American officials would be wise not to restrict their fields of vision to these targets, lest they miss otherpotentialnuclear weapons aspirants. One such candidate is Saudi Arabia, which is seldom mentioned as a problem country regarding nuclear weapons. Much like the movie Casablanca, the “usual suspects” are more readily trotted because they are at odds with American national interests nearly across the board, while Saudi Arabia shares many interests with the United States.
The Saudis have a pool of strategic interests that likely put them at odds with American counterproliferation policy. Riyadh’s major regional rivals are capable, or soon will be, of threatening the Saudi kingdom with nuclear brinkmanship; Israel has the most formidable nuclear weapons capabilities in the region; Iran appears bent on acquiring nuclear weapons; and Iraq might resurrect a nuclear weapons program after the Americans depart Baghdad. The Saudi royals might also worry that the United States could become a threat to the kingdom. The Saudis, for example, might consider a scenario in which relations between Riyadh and Washington deteriorate into conflict over the methods and means to combat al Qaeda. The Saudis realize that their conventional military capabilities—notwithstanding their modern weapons inventories—would be hard-pressed to defend against the larger military manpower pools in Iran or Iraq or against the sophisticated technological capabilities of the Israeli or the American militaries. In short, the Saudis would be strategically sensible to look to nuclear weapons as a potential “quick fix” to keep rivals at bay.
The Saudis already have in place a foundation for building a nuclear weapons deterrent. In the mid-1980s, they clandestinely negotiated the purchase of about 50 to 60 Chinese CSS-2 missiles. The Chinese and Saudis were able to complete the deal before American intelligence was wise to the relationship. The Saudis paid handsomely, with about $3 billion to $3.5 billion dollars for the Chinese missiles capable of reaching up to about 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles). The CSS-2s had been armed with nuclear warheads when they were operational in the Chinese force structure, but Riyadh and Beijing claim that the missiles delivered to Saudi Arabia were armed with conventional warheads and rebuffed U.S. requests to inspect the missiles. The CSS-2 missiles, however, are too inaccurate to be militarily effective with conventional munitions, but more than accurate enough for the delivery of nuclear weapons. It is well past time for Washington to renew calls for independent inspection of the Saudi missiles to ensure that they are armed as the Chinese and Saudis claim, and that ballistic missile modernization efforts are not underway.
Even if the Chinese refrained from selling nuclear warheads to the Saudis as part of the missile deal, Beijing and Riyadh could look to Islamabad to work around their ostensible commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Chinese are suspected of past provision of nuclear weapons designs to Pakistan, and the Pakistanis might be able to tap their Chinese-honed nuclear weapons expertise to design a warhead suitable for the Saudi CSS-2s. Recent public exposures of Pakistan’s willingness to provide expertise to the nuclear weapons programs in North Korea, Iran and possibly Libya show that Islamabad’s view toward nuclear weapons proliferation equates to “show me the money.” Riyadh was willing to pay the Chinese lucratively for the CSS-2s and no doubt would be similarly generous in subsidizing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for nuclear warheads.
Recent high-level official travels between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan lend some evidence of ballistic missile and nuclear weapons cooperation. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah traveled to Pakistan in October 2003 and reportedly secured a secret agreement with President Pervez Musharraf, under which Pakistan will provide the Saudis with nuclear weapons technology in exchange for oil. The crown prince sent one of his sons to Pakistan in May 2002 to view a Pakistani ballistic missile test. And earlier still, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan in May 1999 visited a Pakistani uranium enrichment facility. American intelligence officials are dismissive of “stories” of Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation, citing the “absence of evidence.”
Such a conclusion implies reasoning along these lines: If a tree falls in the forest and doesn’t land on a CIA agent’s head, the tree didn’t fall. Unfortunately, the CIA’s failure to detect the Saudi-Chinese missile deal, much like its more recent failure in 1998 to anticipate the Indian nuclear test that set off the arms race in South Asia, shows that trees are falling throughout the nuclear proliferation forest, but that the CIA’s agents are too few and far between not to get hit on their heads. American intelligence has to work with a blend of humility in the face of raw intelligence shortcomings—especiallyfromhuman sources—and an analytic toughness to push intelligence collectors to fill gaps to ensure that Saudi nuclear weapons mounted on ballistic missiles will not come to be just another entry on a longer list of intelligence failures.
Richard L. Russell is an adjunct assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.
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