Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif delivers an address Nov. 4 at a military exercise in the Bahawalpur district. Pakistani analysts do not believe Pakistan would strike a deal with Saudi Arabia to provide nuclear weapons. (Agence France-Presse)
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ISLAMABAD — Contrary to a Nov. 6 report by the BBC, analysts here do not believe Pakistan has an agreement to supply Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons.
Citing a range of named and unnamed sources, the report, by Mark Urban, the diplomatic and defense editor for the BBC’s flagship “Newsnight” program, claimed Saudi Arabia could acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan if Iran obtained a nuclear capability.
A spokesman for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the report was “entirely baseless and mischievous,” and that “Pakistan’s nuclear program is purely for its own legitimate self-defense.”
He highlighted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s US visit in October where “President Obama reiterated his confidence in Pakistan’s commitment and dedication to nuclear security and recognized that Pakistan is fully engaged with the international community on nuclear safety and security issues.”
Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, said there is an element of truth in the BBC report insofar as the Saudis believe their previous financial largesse (which some analysts say may have indirectly helped Pakistan’s nuclear program), gives them a “chit to cash in” for nuclear weapons.
Pakistan knows it “would suffer hugely” under US and other Western sanctions if it provided a nuclear weapon to the Saudis, and that even Pakistan’s close ally, China, would look on Islamabad as contributing to a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race.
The report also cited “rumors” of Pakistan transferring non-nuclear armed Shaheen ballistic missiles.
Fitzpatrick is dubious, however, and said even China would be unlikely to supply such missiles.
Similarly, Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said, “The US would react firmly” and “Pakistan would likely face severe sanctions, pressure from the UN Security Council, and further global isolation.”
He said “Saudi Arabia would be harder to sanction, given its importance in world oil markets, but it could face a cut-off of American aid and pressure from the US Congress.”
Speed is vital, he said.
“If Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were willing to bear these costs, and could conduct a transfer before US intelligence picked it up, then there is little that could be done to prevent it,” Joshi said.
“Missile transfer would be less controversial,” he said, but only marginally, as “the US has in the past firmly opposed Chinese transfers of ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia. In the 1980s, when the US learned of those Chinese sales it forced Saudi Arabia to sign the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] and cut military aid.”
Mansoor Ahmed from Quaid-e-Azam University’s Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, who specializes in Pakistan’s national deterrent and delivery program, said other factors discredit a supposed deal.
“Saudi Arabia is an NPT signatory state, which makes it illegal for it to seek, acquire or develop any nuclear weapon-related material, technology or capability from any country or party,” he said.
Pakistan would also not want to share its “privileged status” as “the only Muslim de-facto nuclear weapon state,” he added.
He highlights Pakistan’s aversion to taking sides in the Iranian-Saudi rivalry “which appears to have a Sunni versus Shiite bomb connotation.” Pakistan’s shared border with Iran and its large Shiite minority further prevent it from taking sides, he said.
Ahmed also questions the timing of the reports, “only days after the US-Saudi tensions over a possible thaw in the US-Iranian nuclear impasse and the fact that the US did not support Saudi expectations for an attack on the pro-Iranian Syrian regime of President Bashar-ul-Assad.”
Saudi anxieties over a nuclear Iran are likely to grow, but as an NPT state like Iran, “it can hypothetically only build latent nuclear capability allowed under the NPT that can provide it with the nuclear option, just like Iran is doing.”
This would be a lengthy and questionable tactic, however, as no Nuclear Supplier Group member would “go beyond giving Saudi Arabia nuclear power reactors plus the fuel for it.” And also given Iran’s example, they “would not share any fuel cycle technology, despite being under safeguards.”
Ahmed also highlights the NPT allows signatory states to “develop the full-spectrum of nuclear technology for peaceful uses — primarily nuclear energy, which includes the complete nuclear fuel cycle. ... But to go overtly nuclear, both Iran and Saudi Arabia would have to opt out of the NPT and in the process invite severe international repercussions.”
Saudi Arabia also lacks “ the technological know-how, infrastructure, and most importantly, the trained manpower to execute an ambitious nuclear project,” he said, and this would push Saudi Arabia to “seek quick solutions to its security dilemma through extended deterrence, which only the United States might be able to offer.”
Ultimately, Ahmed said Pakistan likely would avoid any involvement in the Iranian-Saudi rivalry.
“As a state party, Pakistan has had an unblemished record of nuclear responsibility and it has adhered to international treaty obligations and commitments for over 40 years,” Ahmed said.
Therefore, “[Pakistan] would not want to earn more international opprobrium given the past history of the illicit and private proliferation network of A.Q. Khan. Also, since Saudi Arabia is an NPT state, it would be incumbent upon Pakistan not to provide assistance to Saudi Arabia.”