August 8, 2020

Saudi Arabia and China nuclear cooperation - is Riyadh seeking nukes?

Saudi DF-3A missiles on parade (2014)

A recent story in The New York Times claims that the U.S. intelligence community believes Saudi Arabia is working with China on a program that could potentially lead to a nuclear weapons capability. According to the paper, Saudi Arabia may be in talks with China to develop an indigenous nuclear fuel production capability, a step often seen as the initial phase of a nuclear weapons program.

American intelligence agencies have discovered at least two facilities in the kingdom that may be undisclosed nuclear facilities. In addition to a small nuclear research facility near Riyadh, the Saudis are in discussions with five companies to build two reactors, with a plan to have 16 reactors on line by 2030. While the United States may believe Saudi Arabia with nuclear energy is no problem, it is concerned that a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia might trigger a wider acquisition of the weapons in the area.

I think that puts the cart before the horse. It is not Saudi Arabia's potential acquisition of nuclear weapons that will catalyze a regional arms race - it is Iran. Most sane people are under no illusion that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. Despite the Obama Administration's ill-advised and abysmally-negotiated nuclear deal with Iran, the Iranians have continued their quest for a nuclear weapon.

Skeptics will claim that the International Atomic Energy Agency, tasked with monitoring Iranian compliance with the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has found no evidence of Iranian violations of the agreement. Absence of proof is not proof of compliance, it merely means the IAEA has not found any violations. How could they? Although the JCPOA allows inspections of Iranian military facilities, the Iranians refuse to allow access, and the IAEA will not call them on it. Why not? The answer: pressure from the Europeans. The Europeans are not worried about an Iranian nuclear weapons program - Iran is not threatening them or their allies. So-called Iranian "compliance" with the JCPOA allows them to peddle their wares to the world's leading sponsor of terrorism.

Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability will trigger an immediate Saudi response. While I deplore the release of classified documents by the Wikileaks crowd, some of the information is interesting. Here is an excerpt from a February 2010 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to the Secretary of State. (10RIYADH178, SCENESETTER FOR SECRETARY CLINTON'S FEB 15-16 VISIT TO SAUDI ARABIA, classified SECRET NOFORN. (My highlighting.)

9. (S/NF) COUNTERING IRAN: We expect that Saudi Arabia will continue to develop its ties with China, in part to counterbalance relations with the West. While the King's preference is to cooperate with the U.S., he has concluded that he needs to proceed with his own strategy to counter Iranian influence in the region, which includes rebuilding Riyadh-Cairo-Damascus coordination, supporting Palestinian reconciliation, supporting the Yemeni government, and expanding relations with non-traditional partners such as Russia, China, and India to create diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran that do not directly depend on U.S. help. The King told General Jones that if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.

Saudi officials have also gone public, stating to a The New York Times reporter, "It would be completely unacceptable to have Iran with a nuclear capability and not the Kingdom."

Unlike some of the intelligence analysts who fear Riyadh might turn to China for the technology to develop weapons, or try to just acquire them from China, I don't find that likely. Why do some analysts think that the Saudis may turn to Beijing? Here we need to go back a few decades to 1987. I remember this well - I was with the Defense Intelligence Agency and followed this very closely.

In 1987, commander of the Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces, Lieutenant General (Prince) Khalid bin Sultan bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud made several secret (or so he thought) trips to China. For those who do not understand Saudi names or know the leaders, let me elaborate. Khalid is the son of then-Minister of Defense Sultan, son of then-King Fahd. Khalid was later the commander of the Arab/Muslim troops in Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Khalid was in China to acquire ballistic missiles. In 1987 and 1988, Iran and Iraq had been at war for over seven years. In 1988, Iraqi engineers modified the Soviet-provided Scud missiles into a longer range missiles dubbed the al-Husayn (after Muhammad's grandson and imam, not Saddam Husayn) by increasing the size of the fuel tank and decreasing the size of the warhead.

Tehran and Baghdad became almost nightly targets in early 1988. Having been in Baghdad in 1988 on the receiving end of Iranian Scud missiles, and later in Riyadh in 1991 on the receiving end of Iraqi al-Husayn missiles, I can attest to the impact on the population.

The Saudis wanted their own ballistic missile capability, but were not able to convince the United States to supply it. So, they turned to China. The Chinese provided Saudi Arabia with about 30 DF-3A medium-range missiles, armed with conventional warheads. The missile is very inaccurate, but since it was designed to carry a nuclear warhead, that was not an issue. It was the beginning of what today is known as the Royal Saudi Strategic Missile Force. The inaccuracy, as well as the time and difficulty in refueling the liquid-fueled missiles, led to the decision to not employ them during Desert Storm. It would have caused unnecessary civilian casualties and achieved very little militarily. Coalition airpower was much more effective.

The Saudi DF-3A missiles had not been seen publicly until they were displayed at a military exercise in 2014. The photo above is from the parade at the end of the exercise. Watch the video here - the caption reads: His Highness the Crown Prince attends the closing ceremony of Exercise "Sword of 'Abdullah" in Hafr al-Batin.

Why buy an inaccurate missile if you were not going to acquire the nuclear warhead that makes the system viable? I think it was just the first step in a long-range plan.

If the Saudis are not going to get nuclear warheads for the their Chinese-made missiles, where would they get them? Many of us who have followed events in the Kingdom for years believe the Saudis have had a plan for years. They will acquire the warheads from Pakistan. After all, they funded the Pakistani nuclear weapons program.

According to retired Pakistani Major General Feroz Hassan Khan, Saudi Arabia provided generous financial support to Pakistan that enabled the completion of the nuclear weapons program. It is possible that the Saudis provided the finding with the proviso that if needed, the Pakistanis would provide warheads for the DF-3A. Notorious Pakistani engineer AQ Khan revealed that Pakistan has the capability to produce such compatible warheads.

If Iran develops a nuclear weapons capability, it is almost certain Saudi Arabia will acquire that capability as well. It will not be limited to Saudi Arabia - other countries will do the same. I suspect we will see research and development in Turkey and Egypt, and possibly the United Arab Emirates.

Look for the Saudis to go shopping in Islamabad, not Beijing.