Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Bomb

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

On February 19, the Democratic majority of the House Oversight and Reform Committee released an eye-opening interim report.  Based on testimony from “multiple” whistleblowers, the report reveals that the Trump Administration is engaged in a frenzied dash to push through a sale of nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia without consulting Congress.

Several of the individuals who are promoting the deal, including our old friend General Michael Flynn, are Trump cronies both inside and outside the administration who stand to make a killing if the deal goes through.  If only Iran had had the sense to buy nukes from friends of Trump, it would never have faced sanctions or the threat of a US invasion.

Selling nuclear reactors to the Saudis should cause alarm.  The kingdom claims that it needs nuclear reactors (it has none currently) in order to meet its rising energy needs.  However, the House interim report states that “experts worry that transferring sensitive U.S. nuclear technology could allow Saudi Arabia to produce nuclear weapons that contribute to the proliferation of nuclear arms throughout an already unstable Middle East.”  The Saudis are insisting that the agreement give them the right to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium from spent nuclear reactor fuel.  Enrichment and reprocessing capability would enable the Saudis to go in a short time from a peaceful, civil nuclear program to producing a bomb.  During an interview which aired on the March 18, 2018 “60 Minutes,” Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (“MBS,” as he is known), said: “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

There is no sign that any of this troubles Trump.  Nothing the Saudis do gets a rise out of the president.  (Maybe Trump just likes anyone in white robes.)  Congress, however, including many Republicans, has had enough of the Saudis.  Like most of us, Congress was appalled by the October 2, 2018 murder of Washington Postwriter Jamal Khashoggi, apparently on Bin Salman’s personal orders.  Trump, on the other hand, retains his doglike fidelity to the crown prince.  One suspects Trump would defend the crown prince even if Bin Salman had shot Khashoggi in the middle of New York’s Fifth Avenue.

On February 13, in a stunning rebuke to the president, the House voted 248-to-177 to invoke the War Powers Resolution and end US support for the Saudis’ genocidal war on Yemen. The measure now goes to the Senate.

Congress may tighten the requirements for nuclear cooperation agreements such as Trump’s prospective reactor sale to the Saudis.  Nuclear cooperation agreements (“123 agreements”) are regulated by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.  Unfortunately, the Atomic Energy Act does not actually require Congress to assent to a nuclear transfer.  Congress, however, can veto a transfer.  New legislation, pointedly named the Saudi Nuclear Proliferation Act, would change that.  The bill, introduced in the Senate on Feb. 28, strengthens the Atomic Energy Act by requiring that transfers of US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia be approved by Congress.

If Trump’s nuclear deal dies, as it should, Russia, China, South Korea, and France have also submitted bids to build the Saudi reactors.  Each one of these alternate suppliers has fatal drawbacks.  Henry Sokolski, Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, writes that “If Saudi Arabia buys Russian, it is all but asking Moscow to let Iran know exactly what the kingdom is doing in the nuclear realm.” Reactors which China and France are building overseas are behind schedule and over-budget.  South Korea’s reactors incorporate American technology, which means that Congress has the power under the Atomic Energy Act to block a Saudi-Korean reactor sale.

The New York TimesNicholas Kristof observes:

Trump seems to believe that the Saudis have us over a barrel: If we don’t help them with nuclear technology, someone else will. That misunderstands the U.S.-Saudi relationship.  The Saudis depend on us for their security, and the blunt truth is that we hold all the cards in this relationship, not them.

The Pakistan Connection

There may be an easier way for the Saudis to acquire nuclear weapons than building their own. I ran across these paragraphs in a postby an Indian blogger:

The Saudis are virtually bankrolling the Pakistani economy — $3 billion in cash, another $3 billion in oil (with deferred payment facility) and anywhere around $20 billion in investments — which makes Pakistan a vassal state.

Besides, the UAE, which is closely aligned with Saudi Arabia, is chipping in with another $6.2 billion aid package.

That’s a lot of cabbage. How will Pakistan pay it back?  One way is by giving Saudi Arabia a bomb.

Rumors of an arrangement or understanding under which Pakistan would transfer nuclear weapons to the kingdom go back to the 1970s when Saudi Arabia provided funding for Pakistan’s nascent nuclear bomb project.  On November 22, 2018, in a story titled “Saudis Want a U.S. Nuclear Deal. Can They Be Trusted Not to Build a Bomb?” the New York Times noted that

The Saudi government provided the financing for Pakistan to secretly build its own nuclear arms…. That financial link has long left American intelligence officials wondering if there was a quid pro quo: that if Saudi Arabia ever needed its own small arsenal, Pakistan could provide it….

The Times goes on to say that there may be an understanding that if Saudi Arabia requests troops from Pakistan, those troops will bring nukes with them.

In a 2011 article, Bruce Reidel, author of Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad, noted that

Some reports allege the RSAF [Royal Saudi Air Force] keeps a couple of aircraft permanently deployed in Pakistan to be able to deliver the bomb to Riyadh on short notice if the King asks for them [sic]. It is impossible to know if these reports have any veracity but the idea makes sense.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia deny that they have a nuclear agreement.  However, Simon Henderson, an energy expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agrees that

Saudi Arabia probably already has a nuclear weapons capability, courtesy of Pakistan.  The assumption is that Pakistan’s nuclear-tipped missiles could be sent to the kingdom, either to boost Saudi deterrence against Iran or to safeguard part of Pakistan’s strategic force in time of crisis with India….

Pakistan is currently in a crisis with India, one which may escalate to nuclear war.  For decades, Pakistan has trained, equipped, and given safe haven to jihadi groups which it uses as proxies for attacks on India. On February 13, an attack by militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad in Indian-occupied Kashmir killed 40 Indian paramilitary police.  India has accused Pakistan of backing Jaish-e-Mohammad.

Since then, each side has carried out air attacks on the other’s territory, and each nation has claimed to have shot down the other’s warplanes.  There has been firing across the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between Pakistan and India.  Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has met with the country’s National Command Authority, which controls Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.  The crisis could spiral into a full-scale war. [1]

The Man with the Golden Gun

Christopher Clary and Mara E. Karlin predicted in 2012 that it is “likely that Pakistan will provide nuclear weapons technology [to Saudi Arabia] if it is seeking to replace U.S. aid following a possible future rupture in the relationship [with the US].”  Complaining that the Pakistanis “don’t do a damn thing for us,” President Donald Trump slashed $300 million of aid to Pakistan in September.  Like his predecessors in the Oval Office, Trump has wearied of Pakistan’s empty promises to crack down on militant groups which attack NATO forces in Afghanistan. Bush and Obama tried using financial pressure to force Pakistan to sever its ties with militants.  Now it’s Trump’s turn to try what has never worked in the past.  The danger is that US pressure could backfire, driving Pakistan closer to Riyadh.

Contrast the royal treatment Pakistan is receiving from Riyadh.  MBS made a state visit to Pakistan in February.  During his two-day visit, the Pakistanis treated the Saudi crown prince like a rock star.  Pakistan lavished MBS with gifts, including—no joke—a gold-plated submachine gun.  Pakistan’s jubilance is understandable.  Bin Salman has promised Pakistan $20 billion in Saudi investments, throwing a lifeline to Pakistan which is in one of its recurrent fiscal crises.  Commentators say that MBS has cemented Pakistan’s membership in the Sunni alliance against Iran.

We are left with a puzzle.  Suppose it’s true that Saudi Arabia can get nukes from Pakistan at any time just like ordering a pizza.  Does that mean that the Saudis are telling the truth and only want nuclear reactors in order to generate electricity?  Then why is Riyadh insisting on ENR as part of a nuclear cooperation agreement with Washington?  Is the Saudis’ rumored “understanding” with Pakistan bogus?  Maybe, maybe not.  If Riyadh does have an understanding with Pakistan it’s in order to hedge against Iran going nuclear.  Riyadh may now have decided to build its own bomb in order to hedge against a possibly unreliable Islamabad—hedging on top of hedging.

The Saudis cannot be trusted with nuclear reactors.  Yet despite the revelations from the House Oversight Committee’s report, the Trump Administration appears still to be moving ahead with the sale.  As recently as February 12, President Trump personally met with representatives from America’s nuclear industry.  This is only to be expected from a president not given to playing anything safe.  Or smart.


[1]  Pakistan-backed militants are also making trouble for Iran.  A suicide attack on February 13 killed 27 members of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.  This was “one of the deadliest attacks in years to strike Iran,” according to the New York Times.  The Pakistan-based Jaish al Adl(“Army of Justice”), which the Timeswrites has ties to Al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the attack.  Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan Province, where the attack took place, borders Pakistan.

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at