April 21, 2015


Pakistan, the Saudis' Indispensable Nuclear Partner (PERVEZ HOODBHOY, APRIL 21, 2015, NY Times)

For Saudi Arabia, the Pakistani Parliament's surprising assertion of independence was especially worrisome because it came on the heels of the American-backed preliminary nuclear deal with Iran. The kingdom has long feared rapprochement between Iran and the United States, as well as the development of Iran's nuclear program. The influential former head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal, has described Iran as a "paper tiger, but one with steel claws." According to documents disclosed by WikiLeaks, the late King Abdullah repeatedly urged Washington to attack Iran and "cut off the head of the snake." And now under the recent nuclear agreement, which is to be finalized by the end of June, Iran's breakout time -- the time it would need to build a nuclear weapon if it actually set out to -- would be just one year.

This development undermines Saudi Arabia's longstanding nuclear strategy. In the 1970s, partly to extend its influence, partly in the name of Muslim solidarity, it began bankrolling Pakistan's nuclear program. In gratitude, the Pakistani government renamed the city of Lyallpur as Faisalabad, after King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. When Pakistan seemed to dither after India tested five nuclear bombs in May 1998, the Saudi government pledged to give it 50,000 barrels of oil a day for free. Pakistan soon tested six of its own bombs. Later, the Saudi defense minister at the time, Prince Sultan, visited the secret nuclear and missile facilities at the Kahuta complex near Islamabad, which had been off-limits even to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, by her account.

In exchange for its largesse, Saudi Arabia has received Pakistani military assistance in the form of soldiers, expertise and ballistic missiles. Pakistani pilots flew Saudi combat jets against South Yemen in the late 1960s. The Pakistan Air Force helped the Royal Saudi Air Force in its early years. Today Saudi officers train at Pakistan's national defense colleges.

The Saudi government has taken the quid pro quo to imply certain nuclear benefits as well, including, if need be, the delivery at short notice of some of the nuclear weapons it has helped pay for. Some Pakistani warheads are said to have been earmarked for that purpose and reportedly are stocked at the Minhas air force base in Kamra, near Islamabad. (Pakistan, which has as many as 120 nuclear warheads, denies this, and to my knowledge, there is no precedent for a nuclear country transferring weapons to a non-nuclear one.)

The Saudis have also come to expect that they fall under the nuclear protection of Pakistan, much like, say, Japan is covered by the United States's nuclear umbrella. Pakistan's nuclear forces were developed to target India, but they can strike farther, as was recently demonstrated by the successful test launch of the Shaheen-3 missile, which has a range of 2,750 kilometers.

But with Pakistan now reluctant to openly support Saudi policy in Yemen, the Saudi government is starting to worry about its reliability as a nuclear partner.

Posted by at April 21, 2015 2:08 PM

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