Titled “Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next? [PDF]” the report was drafted by former Obama Pentagon official Colin Kahl, along with Melissa Dalton and Matthew Irvine. Going against the conventional narrative, the researchers determine that the risk of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East following an Iranian nuclear test, while “greater than zero,” is unlikely.
Two of the main regional powers — Egypt and Turkey — would be unlikely to seek nuclear weapons due to lack of a threat from Iran on the part of the former and the guarantee of NATO’s nuclear umbrella on the part of the latter. This leaves the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the most likely country in the Middle East to try to obtain nuclear weapons should Iran ever choose to build nuclear weapons. Saudi nuke acquisition, according to conventional wisdom, could either be in the form of a reformatting its native civilian nuclear research program to support military aims or a deal with Pakistan to provide a nuclear guarantee against Iran.
Either of those scenarios is far less likely than most would imagine, according to the report. Instead, as shown in the chart below, the authors believe that it’s far more probable that the Kingdom would rely on scaling up its conventional defenses against Iran or relying on a United States’ nuclear guarantee:
In reaching their conclusion, the researchers weighed the possible disincentives Saudi Arabia would face in opting to develop its own nuclear arsenal, including the risk of economic sanctions and a blow to the Saudis’ reputation globally. Possible security risks that follow along with the possession of nuclear weapons would also be a concern the Saudi government, as well as the odds that such weapons could lead to a split with the U.S. — a result that would far outweigh the benefits of owning nuclear weapons.
The “Pakistani option” — Saudi Arabia coming into possession of ready-make nuclear weapons from Pakistan — is likewise dismissed by the report. While Pakistan and Saudi Arabia maintain strong military ties, and the Pakistani Embassy in Riyadh once said “each Pakistani considers (the) security of Saudi Arabia as his personal matter,” Pakistan would be unlikely to provide nuclear weapons to advance any objective not related to countering India. As noted by CNAS, the nuclear club has not grown substantially since China tested weapons fifty years ago, and has in fact seen more states give up nuclear weapons than acquire them.
Iran still has not decided to pursue nuclear weapons, according to intelligence from the United States and Israel. And despite what the CNAS report views as the low chances of a nuclear arms race should Iran acquire a weapon, it also stresses that the United States’ policy should remain one of preventing Iran from doing so, with military force if necessary.