Thursday, 29 September 2016

Might Saudi Arabia already have a nuclear weapon?

I've been thinking about the Middle East dynamics and something doesn't quite add up.

The Iranians, are likely happy with a nuclear weapons programme rather than owning a viable weapon. They'll use it as a bargaining chip and not an actual project. I see no reason to disagree with this because the lesson for every rogue state is that a nuclear weapons programme – and the decision to finally finish it – is a balance. But every such state seems to think it's an important process to have.

The Turks are protected by an (assumed) US umbrella in-country. The Israelis aren't exactly coy about their own weapons. And we know the Iranians at least have a programme.

But the Saudis are strange. They were up to their eyeballs in nuclear proliferation, have plenty of money and see a clear and present danger across the Persian/Arabian Gulf justifying their own nuclear capability. They can rely on the US, but how much? Would Washington really risk a nuclear exchange with Iran over Saudi Arabia's integrity? How can they trust that assumption today? There's a gap here, and it makes me suspicious.

I suspect Saudi Arabia is almost certainly already a nuclear power. In 1987 it bought a few dozen IRBMs from China. We know Saudi Arabia paid for Pakistan’s bomb program while China provided Pakistan with the bomb designs. And of course, Chinese warheads fit onto Chinese missiles.

If they do have a bomb, the Israelis are remarkably discrete about it. Particularly in light of how the Israeli Air Force has experience in destroying whatever nuclear facilities it feels may threaten Israel – Operation Opera or Operation Orchard, for instance.

We also know the Israeli government has long exaggerated Iran’s nuclear weapons programme for its own interests. If Saudi Arabia has the components of nuclear weapons, is there a geopolitical scenario where it is in Israel's interest to stay quiet about that programme?

To my knowledge, there hasn't been a single word from Israel regarding Saudi nuclear weapons, in comparison to the existential threat of Iranian nuclear weapons that may exist at some point in the future. Given the region's dynamics, that seems strange.

What may be true, however, is rumours about the Saudis wiring its oil facilities to make them unusable in the case of invasion, including the potential spreading of radioactive material as part of the plan to destroy those installations. The difference between buying radioactive material – caesium 137 is not exactly expensive, and already used in the oil industry – and building a bomb is immense in practice.

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