Confronting Reality: The Saudi-Pakistani Nuclear Nexus


In the whispering campaign that passes for international diplomacy between Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbor states, late 2013 has been a high-volume period.    Saudi Arabia’s pique at American-led efforts to negotiate a six-month relaxation in economic sanctions in exchange for Iran’s halt of enrichment activities was palpable.  For several years, top Saudi officials have threatened that should Tehran gain nuclear weapons capability, Riyadh would follow.  That rejoinder received life anew as Iran negotiated with the P5+1 in Geneva this November.   Many question whether Saudi officials and interlocutors were bluffing or were serious; and, if serious would Riyadh have a reliable partner in such an acquisition from Pakistan?

Western nonproliferation pundits have generally dismissed the possibility of such nuclear proliferation collaboration, viewing the risks to Riyadh and Islamabad to be too high and the whispering campaign to be a Saudi effort to put pressure on the United States to be more firm with Iran.  Analysts of the Saudi monarchy also have argued that its conservative nature would mitigate against it going to Pakistan for a nuclear weapons “chit.”

But a more careful assessment of trans-regional history and Saudi-Pakistani interrelations over time makes analysts like me – who both have lived in Middle Eastern countries and who analyze Pakistan and Saudi Arabia security matters from a South Asian security perspective – far less certain that the Saudis are bluffing.  Saudi Arabia’s unique relationship with Pakistan during the period of Islamabad’s civilian nuclear power and nuclear weapons development programs makes this an especially important connection in the event of an ever-widening chain of nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East and South Asia. Although officially denied by Riyadh and Islamabad, many South Asia experts, including Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institution, believe that a secret and long-standing agreement exists that Pakistan would provide the Kingdom with nuclear technology and weapons should the Saudis feel threatened by a third party nuclear program.  Furthermore, Pakistan has a recent history of responding positively to Saudi security requests, most notably in the spring of 2011 Saudi royals feared spill-over of a Shi’ite uprising in Bahrain and requested Islamabad ready an expeditionary military force to deploy upon request.  Pakistan did so without hesitation.

Although it is impossible to know precisely how the Kingdom would react should Iran declare itself a nuclear power or arrive at a “breakout point” where Tehran could quickly mate a credible nuclear weapon with a delivery device, it is clear in 2013 that the Saudi leadership mistrusts American leadership— and American promises—more than at any time in the recent history of U.S.-Saudi relations, and perhaps more than any time since President Franklin Roosevelt met King Abdulaziz ibn Saud in 1945. Even a firm American declaration of extended nuclear deterrence in support of Riyadh and its Sunni Arab neighbors seems unlikely provide sufficient comfort to the Saudis.  Given its unprecedented current  mistrust of the United States in dealings with Iran and its history of close interaction with the Pakistan military and intelligence services, the Kingdom is likely to seek Pakistan’s assistance in some capacity should Iran arrive at a nuclear weapons breakout capability.  There are four distinct possibilities.

First, the Saudis might ask Pakistan for a declaration that its nuclear weapons would be available from sites in Pakistan for retaliation in the event of any use of nuclear weapons against the Kingdom by Iran.

A second possibility is for Pakistan to commit some of its nuclear-armed airplanes and pilots into Saudi airfields. Pakistan’s air force often trains and exercises with Saudi pilots.

In a variant of this option, and a third possibility, Pakistan might send nuclear-capable missiles and trained crews to Saudi Arabia. That would take more time and require Saudi spending on launch-capable pads, nuclear storage facilities, and control systems that do not currently exist.

(Each of these three possibilities has the additional advantage of aligning with the interpretation of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that enabled American stationing of its nuclear weapons in Europe during the Cold War, that is, as long as nuclear weapons material remained under at least shared Pakistani control in peacetime, the Saudis could effectively join the nuclear club without a technical violation of the NPT.)

Fourth, Pakistan might be asked to commence transfer of the technical know-how and capacity for nuclear weapons into Saudi Arabia in a phased process. If not combined with one of the above conditions, this would take considerable time and be of significant concern to Saudi Arabia’s neighbors including Israel.

Pakistani military and civilian nuclear weapons officials make it clear that they wish to avoid dealing with a Saudi request for nuclear weapons assistance, hoping that extended American nuclear deterrence can fill the need.  But should Saudi mistrust of American reliability make this view unrealistic, Pakistan’s historic and ongoing reliance on Riyadh for a wide array of economic and political support makes it likely that Islamabad would respond positively while adhering to four imperatives.

First, Islamabad will minimize provocation of Beijing. China’s technical know-how underpins

the vast majority of Pakistan’s nuclear power capacity and armaments designs. Despite

autonomous technological capabilities, Pakistan would require Chinese support to transfer nuclear

weapons expertise to Saudi Arabia. This imperative, coupled with China’s reluctance to be seen as a nuclear weapons proliferator, suggests that Pakistan would prefer a short-term transfer option.

Second, Pakistan will attempt to minimize dispersion of, or disruption of, its nuclear deterrent against India – the primary security rationale for its nuclear force. This imperative would encourage Pakistan to help Saudi Arabia only with a minimum transfer of nuclear weapons assets or know-how.

Third, Pakistan will seek to limit provocation of the United States and the wider international community by abetting the permanent transfer of nuclear weapons know-how to a third party country, especially one that is a signatory to the NPT. Pakistan’s political leadership understands the depths to which the A.Q. Khan nuclear weapons assistance program,

which benefited Iran, damaged its relationship with the international community. The military

is less worried about the fallout from the Khan affair but recognizes the damage that a repeat

offense of nuclear know-how transfer could do to it worldwide. This imperative would also encourage Pakistan to respond the Saudis in a manner that promised rhetorical support or limited transfer of assets but not know-how.

Finally, the Pakistani military and civilian establishments will take into account Israel’s reaction to any nuclear weapons collaboration with Saudi Arabia. As Feroz Khan, a retired Pakistani brigadier general who worked on nuclear weapons in Pakistan noted in his 2012 book Eating Grass, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons developments have consistently taken Israel into account, assuring that nuclear-capable missiles lacked the range to strike the Israeli homeland mainly in an effort to deter the kind of strike Israel launched against Osirak, Iraq in 1981. In order to adhere to this constraint, Pakistani officials likely would offer assistance to Saudi Arabia with a loaned deterrent of nuclear armed aircraft. These would be easier for Israel to counter with standard air defense options and would not threaten a new specter of nuclear missiles from Saudi Arabia or an indigenous Saudi program for its own bomb.

Perhaps ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran will produce a firm halt in the elements of its nuclear program that could lead to weaponization.  This remains the best outcome for all parties involved, especially those in the Middle East and in South Asia. However, a declared or a declared and tested nuclear Iranian weapons capability almost certainly will inspire Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of its own nuclear deterrent, and is likely to involve Pakistan.

If American efforts and promises fail, then Washington must accept that Islamabad will transfer some form of nuclear weapons capability to Saudi Arabia. Washington’s best policy option is be realistic rather than idealistic and maintain sufficient diplomatic and military relevance in Islamabad and Riyadh to limit the impact of this transfer on Israel’s threat calculus.  America should prefer that any physical transfer of capability be limited to aircraft delivery systems and be in small numbers. These features would be the least threatening to Israel in both the short and long term, reinforcing a long-standing Pakistani nuclear weapons posture imperative.


Thomas F. Lynch III is a Distinguished Research Fellow for South Asia and the Near East at the Institute of National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. The conclusions and opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent those of National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the United States Government

Image: U.S. Air Force Photo by Lawrence Crespo