Originally Published 2013-12-20 11:47:34 Published on Dec 20, 2013
There is the possibility, albeit remote, of the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region. Riyadh has always been unambiguous in its stance of acquiring a nuclear weapon if Iran does and the Kingdom's longstanding support for Pakistan's nuclear program alludes to this possibility.
Beyond a cautious welcome: Saudi Arabia's response to US-Iran nuclear deal
" Initially, a lot of initial optimism and enthusiasm surrounded the landmark nuclear deal that was struck between the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, and Iran on November 24, 2013. A significant development in the US-Iran rapprochement, the deal requires Iran to halt uranium enrichment above five per cent, allow its stockpile of nuclear fuel to be frozen at current amounts and stop development of the Arak nuclear reactor. These, combined with increased monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities would get the Gulf State relief in trade sanctions worth USD 7bn and access to some frozen accounts overseas. The Obama administration claimed that the 6-month interim period of the nuclear deal will be followed by the demand for larger concessions from Iran and a more comprehensive agreement. The agreement was widely welcomed. It has also generated a degree of trepidation in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia.

The Arab world and Israel have contended that the deal is merely a "pause" in Iran's trajectory of acquiring nuclear-weapons capability. Given the magnitude of threat that Iran poses to the regime in Riyadh, the Saudis fear the larger implications of legitimising not just Iran's enrichment programme but also their assertion as a powerful nation of the region. Riyadh also indicated their displeasure at completely unaware of the content of the deal despite earlier assurances from John Kerry on being kept informed of developments. Nawaf Obaid, Counsellor to Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf, Ambassador to London, said "the problem is not with the deal struck in Geneva, but how it was done".

Saudi Arabia's dismay at the US foreign policy towards the region began with the abandonment of former Egyptian President and long-time ally Hosni Mubarak, the inking of the US-Russia framework for dismantling Syria's chemical weapons programme and the Obama administration's critique of the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. However, the deal with Iran appears to be the "red line" for Saudi Arabia, particularly in the changing regional context. Saudi Arabia reacted to these developments by rejecting their seat at the UN Security Council stating "irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities" 1 over the war in Syria.

Soon after, former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who also served as envoy to Washington, cited the UNSC's "double standards" as a reason for rejecting the seat and pointed out that this was a "message for the US and not the UN"2 . Prince Bandar also indicated that this incidence will be followed by a major shift in US-Saudi relations

Two imperative questions follow this possible shift in relations. How will this development tilt the balance of power in the region? Will US-Iran rapprochement cost Saudi Arabia its domestic security and hegemonic regional stature?

Saudi-Iran relations have been characterised by their quest for regional pre-eminence. The regional turbulence of the last two years has given their antagonism an increasingly sectarian undertone. The Sunni monarchy is wary of the strengthening of the "Shia Crescent" (Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon) under Tehran's tutelage. This is compounded by Tehran's overt support for Bashar Al-Assad's Shia-Alawite regime in Damascus. A Commander of the Revolutionary Guards was killed in Syria this year and there is increased speculation that Iranian battalions are assisting Assad's forces. Even though Tehran has denied the presence of its troops in Syria, it is well known that billions of dollars have been dispensed in aid to Damascus and Iranian backed-Hezbollah is also openly engaged in defending Assad's regime.

Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf himself articulated fears over containing Iran by asserting that Iranian presence in Syria is a "familiar pattern", like the financing and training of Hezbollah, militias in Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain. Mr. Obaid also claimed that Saudi Arabia "will be there to stop them (Iran) wherever they are in Arab countries...we cannot accept Revolutionary Guards running (a)round Homs."

Saudi fears were also evident at the GCC summit in Kuwait, held shortly after the nuclear deal, where Saudi Arabia attempted to secure closer regional cooperation. However, Kuwait, UAE and Oman (Oman facilitated secret nuclear negotiations between Iran and the US) distanced themselves from this proposal. According to the Brookings Institute in Doha, Iran's rehabilitation into the region is likely to induce greater tensions in the GCC because of the states' differing policies towards Tehran.

Saudi Arabia is, therefore, exploring all plausible options to secure its stability and regional dominance. There are reports of increasing contact between the Saudis and Israel. Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan's visit to Israel led some newspapers, including Press TV, to report that Riyadh has offered its airspace to Israeli planes for a possible attack on Iran. However, Riyadh was quick to deny these reports.

Saudi Arabia already has, and can further contribute to boosting the military-led regime in Egypt, both militarily and financially. This will in turn boost Russia-Egypt military ties and provide a diplomatic leverage to get the US to acquiesce and also raise the possibility of weakening Russia-Iran cooperation over Syria. Riyadh has already made a failed attempt to lure Russia away from supporting Assad's regime in Syria by offering Moscow a multibillion dollars arms deal. Saudi Arabia also wields the wherewithal to escalate the Syrian war by supplying the rebels with better and more dangerous weaponry.

Lastly, there is the possibility, albeit remote, of the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region. Riyadh has always been unambiguous in its stance of acquiring a nuclear weapon if Iran does and the Kingdom's longstanding support for Pakistan's nuclear program alludes to this possibility. Saudi Arabia has allegedly provided financial assistance to Pakistan's defence sector including missile and nuclear labs. In 1999 and 2002, Saudi delegations were welcomed by Islamabad to visit the country's enrichment facilities. There are sufficient speculations about Saudi-Pakistan nuclear cooperation and Israeli intelligence sources have reported that Riyadh can acquire nuclear weapons "at will" from Pakistan. However, these rumours have been denied by the Pakistani Foreign Office and the pioneer of Pakistan's nuclear programme, AQ Khan.

The KSA is also a signatory of the non-proliferation treaty and not only lacks nuclear technology and expertise to develop weapons' capability, but it is also unlikely that they will risk sanctions and international isolation. The diplomatic and economic impact of a nuclear programme would be self-defeating for Riyadh. Saudi threats are more rhetorical in that the possibility of an arms race would wreak havoc on not just the region but globally, spiralling towards instant and inevitable recession.

What also restrains Saudi Arabia's clout in this matter is their decades old dependence on the US military for security and the lack of alternative powers to fill this vacuum. Robert Jordan, former US ambassador to Riyadh, candidly claimed that "the leverage that the US has over KSA has a lot to do with a defence shield that still exists...there is no country in the world more capable of, or likely willing to come to the aid of KSA if their interests are threatened". However, several pre-emptive efforts were made to assuage Saudi fears before the interim deal was made. For instance, John Kerry, on a visit to the Kingdom, described the country as a "senior player" in the region and the relationship between the two is "enduring".

Given that Saudi Arabia's military strength is less than one-fifth of Iran's, it will continue to view the US as a security guarantor. Moreover, economic ties between the two nations continue to remain vital to Saudi Arabia's interests. Even though France and Russia are well-positioned to take advantage of the shift in US-Saudi relations, it is unlikely that either of them will fill the security vacuum. Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf wrote that "Saudi Arabia has no choice but to become more assertive in its foreign policy...because our partners have seemed all to ready to concede our safety and risk our region's stability". However, despite the assertion towards a "new defence doctrine", Riyadh's options appear to be limited.

(The writer is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.