By Khaled Ahmed
Dec 21 2013
Fears of an Iranian nuclear bomb might compel Saudi Arabia to make its own, increasing the chances of a nuclear conflict in the region
After Pakistan began its pursuit of nuclear weapons, many Pakistanis thought the nuclear bomb would be an Islamic bomb, in line with the country’s “creation myth” that it would have a pan-Islamic vision. In 1998, Pakistan tested its bomb, officially saying it was an India-specific weapon in response to India’s own development and testing of one, which India swore was not Pakistan-specific. But no one believed it was strictly a “bilateral” bomb. There is evidence that, far from being an Islamic bomb, Pakistan had produced a “Sunni bomb” that threatened Iran.
There was a moment in Pakistan’s funny history of bomb-making when the nuclear egg it was going to lay would be a Sunni bomb. Post-revolution Iran was scared of the old Pak-Saudi equation as it eyed the coast across the Gulf once known as the Persian Gulf. It saw Pakistan’s developing bomb as a trigger of Iran’s vulnerability. It knew that General Zia, gestating the radioactive foetus, was greatly beholden to the Saudis and had probably signed a secret defence deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) created by Saudi Arabia in 1980. It got in touch with second-in-command to Zia, General Aslam Beg, and the “father” of the Pakistan bomb, A.Q. Khan, and secretly purchased nuclear secrets that would put Iran on the nuclear road. The rest is history, including the mysterious death of General Zia, who could have been about to become wise as to what a general serving under him and an uncontrolled proliferating nuclear scientist had done: causing a Shia bomb to be born.
As Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations notes in his book Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic (2006), Iran was disturbed about a nuclear Pakistan falling to Arab-funded, Shia-hating al-Qaeda, as assisted by the deep state in Pakistan. In 1998, when Iran and the Pakistan-backed Taliban government nearly came to blows on the Iran-Afghanistan border, Tehran got even more scared.
Takeyh writes: “The possibility of the collapse of the current military government [General Musharraf] and its displacement by a radical Sunni regime with access to nuclear weapons is something Iran feels it must guard against. Pakistan’s nuclear test in 1998 caused considerable anxiety in Tehran, with Rafsanjani stressing, ‘This is a major step towards proliferation of nuclear weapons. This is a truly dangerous matter and we must be concerned.’ Foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi also mused, ‘This was one genie that was much better to have stayed confined. Along with Iraq, Pakistan is a potential threat that Iran must take into consideration as it plots its defence strategy.’”
The latest news is that Saudi Arabia is about to call in its secret cards and ask Pakistan to give it some bombs from the arsenal of over 100 bombs it has in the attic while people agitate on the streets for bread.
This month, the Wall Street Journal quoted Prince Al Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as saying that “If Iran does go nuclear, Saudi Arabia may not be far behind. It has options. Riyadh underwrote Pakistan’s atomic-bomb programme and keeps the country’s economy afloat with its largesse. The arrangement with Pakistan is too strong to dismiss an almost overnight nuclearisation of the Arab peninsula with their help. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who returned to power in June 2013, lived in Saudi exile after a 1999 military coup. Nawaz Sharif, specifically, is very much Saudi Arabia’s man in Pakistan.”
Saudi Arabia’s anger against the US was on a low boil for a long time. The Americans facilitated Iran by destroying the Saudi-aided Taliban in 2001, then destroyed Saudi and Gulf-funded Saddam Hussein, followed by walking out in 2013 of a commitment to punish the Iran-supported Assad regime in Syria.
Will Pakistan proliferate for Saudi Arabia too? Pakistan’s nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy — no Islamist-with-a-flowing-beard and no bomb-maker — thinks it won’t. In a recent article, he stated: “Perforce, Saudi Arabia will turn to Pakistan for nuclear help. This does not mean outright transfer of nuclear weapons by Pakistan to Saudi Arabia. One cannot put credence on rumours that the Saudis have purchased nuclear warheads stocked at Kamra air force base, to be flown out at the opportune time.” Members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will pounce upon Saudi Arabia and Pakistan if that were to happen — without Russia and China helping the Saudis, despite China’s recent investments in Saudi Arabia.
He notes that the Saudis gave free oil to the Nawaz Sharif government faced with empty coffers after the 1998 test; a prince also visited Kahuta, where A.Q. Khan was already proliferating to his heart’s content. Saudi Arabia has the money to buy a lot of nuclear reactors for electricity generation whose spent fuel can yield plutonium to make the bomb. But despite its many world-class universities, it won’t have the scientific manpower needed to complete the cycle. It will borrow Pakistani manpower — seduced by astronomical salaries but putting it down to religious passion of the Sunni variety — from Pakistan’s nuclear complex: the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, Khan Research Laboratories, and the National Defence Complex.
All this looks impossible to achieve. The Saudis may not get the reprocessing outfit with the West watching it closely. What, then, is the final way out for the Saudis, who are furious at the Americans for letting Iran get the upper hand in the region by half-accepting Tehran’s Shia bomb? One can imagine only one scenario, even if it looks tough today: get Pakistan to give a nuclear shield to Saudi Arabia; the Pakistani bomb will deter an Iranian bomb. But something will need to happen before this happens. Pakistan will have to be “conquered” by al-Qaeda and its Taliban warriors.
People say the world won’t let this happen, but we are looking at Pakistan’s population actually shifting its loyalty to the Taliban from a dysfunctional state, based on an all-party conference resolution against American drones in favour of “peace talks” with the terrorists that many observers think is disguised surrender. The Shia-killing sectarian mayhem is on while the nation speaks with one voice against America and any general who says Pakistan is threatened from within may be in danger of being killed by his own officers, as Musharraf found out after he became America’s partner in the war against terror.
Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who implied that the Iranian bomb will be Israel-specific, is gone and the Iranian bomb doesn’t threaten Israel any more — in fact, it never did. Now that the Saudis think it threatens them, a Shia-killing Pakistan, on the brink of bankruptcy, may have to re-target its nukes from east to west under a Taliban caliphate. But if the Saudis get a bomb from Pakistan, the Israeli bomb will perk up too and the world might have to deal with four bombs in the region.
Arch-conservative American politician Patrick J. Buchanan thinks what we are seeing today is the “Second Period of Islamic Power” as predicted by Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc in 1938. The Shia bomb of Iran will show the underside of this second period: Muslims will indefinitely kill and possibly, finally, annihilate fellow Muslims with nuclear weapons, while the West and America “decline nicely” for another 500 years.
Khaled Ahmed is a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’