The former Saudi intelligence chief warned on Monday that the kingdom might seek a nuclear capacity of its own unless Western powers stop Iran’s quest for the ultimate weapon.
Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, who served as the head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence directorate for more than two decades before he became ambassador to the United States during the second Bush Administration, told a Persian Gulf security forum in Riyadh that it was his government’s duty to “consider all possible options, including the possession of these weapons” to protect the Saudi people.
The prince’s statement reflects mounting anxiety among moderate regimes in the Middle East about America’s failure to disable the Iranian nuclear program. Although he no longer holds office, Turki’s views probably reflect a concern in the royal family that the United States will not be able or willing to use force against Iran if sanctions do not deter it from building a nuclear weapon.
After President Barack Obama urged his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak to resign in February, there is also dismay in Riyadh about what the Saudis perceive as an indecisive and feeble policy on the part of the United States in the Middle East. Mubarak was an American ally whose presence tilted the balance of power in the region in favor of the anti-Iranian camp. The present political turmoil in Egypt and the expected rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood there could upset the nation’s long-held peace with Israel and leave the Saudis on their own to confront the Iranian threat across the Persian Gulf.
Without Egyptian support and an enemy of their enemy in Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Saudi Arabia’s influence has started to erode. Its client government in Lebanon was undermined by Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah earlier this year while March’s Shia uprising in Bahrain was, according to the Saudis, part of an Iranian conspiracy against their position on the peninsula.
If Iran and Saudi Arabia both go nuclear, second rate powers as Egypt and Turkey will be compelled to try to attain a similar capacity. American tactical nuclear weapons are already stationed on Turkish soil and can be used by the Turks if they are menaced by a non-NATO power. They might tap into Pakistani expertise to establish a nuclear deterrent of their own, overtly aimed at Israel but actually designed to contain Iran.
In the long run, a nuclear Iran could make the region a safer place. Just as during the Cold War, when mutually assured destruction stopped the superpowers from going to war, Iran and Israel may be compelled to reach an understanding which includes a de facto recognition of the Jewish state by the Middle Eastern parties involved. The world’s great powers would not allow confrontations in the meantime to escalate out of fear of putting the world’s primary oil reserves at risk.
In the short term, the potential for conflict increases if Iran is the only nuclear power besides Israel in the region. The ability to wipe the Jewish state off the map in a single strike (which, given the complexities involved in creating an effective delivery system, is still a theoretical ability at best) or threaten the West’s oil transports through the Strait of Hormuz would embolden Iran’s foreign policy and, at least temporarily, enable it to claim the status of regional hegemon once more.