Colin Kahl

Colin Kahl


Because Saudi Arabia lacks the technical capabilities to readily produce nuclear weapons, much of the concern over Riyadh acquiring a nuclear weapon in response to Iran doing so has centered on Pakistan furnishing the Kingdom with the bomb. One aspect of your report that struck me was the discussion of the considerable disincentives Pakistan has to undertake this action. Could you describe what these are for our readers?

Rumors of a Saudi-Pakistani arrangement to illicitly transfer nuclear weapons to the Kingdom in the event that Iran develops the bomb have circulated for years. Most attention focuses on the motivations underlying the Saudi “demand side” of a possible nuclear transfer deal, but the Pakistani “supply side” of the equation is typically taken for granted. This is a mistake. The rhetoric of an “Islamic bomb” notwithstanding, Pakistan did not develop its nuclear arsenal to help defend Saudi Arabia or the wider Muslim world—they developed the bomb to counter archrival India. Pakistan is therefore unlikely to provide or sell nuclear weapons to any other country unless the strategic imperatives for doing so – especially with regard to balancing India and maintaining relationships with key states – clearly outweigh the expected costs. With regard to a potential transfer of operational weapons to Saudi Arabia, they do not.

First, there is no Iran-centric strategic rationale for Pakistani leaders to transfer nuclear weapons to the Kingdom. Islamabad competes with Tehran for influence in Afghanistan and believes a nuclear-armed Iran would be more assertive in promoting radical Shia ideology and militancy throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. But Pakistani leaders do not view Tehran as a direct or existential security threat.

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Second, given the estimated size of Pakistan’s current nuclear arsenal, it is also not clear whether Islamabad has sufficient weapons to spare, at least in the near future. Pakistan is racing to increase their nuclear weapons stockpile due to Islamabad’s deep anxiety over maintaining even a “minimal deterrent” in the face of Indian plans to increase their stock of nuclear materials and weapons. Islamabad also sees a larger nuclear arsenal as essential to check India’s conventional modernization efforts. In this context, giving the Saudis a portion of the Pakistani nuclear stockpile anytime soon would probably aggravate, not alleviate, Islamabad’s perceived strategic dilemma vis-à-vis India.

Third, a Pakistani transfer of nuclear weapons or other sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia would undoubtedly produce a very harsh response from the United States and other Western countries. Western countries, and perhaps other members of the international community, would likely target Pakistan with sweeping economic and military sanctions, and the United States would probably terminate over $2 billion in annual U.S. economic and security assistance to Pakistan. Given ongoing domestic instability in Pakistan and the potential impact of sanctions on the country’s fragile economy, it is difficult to imagine Pakistani leaders risking an international economic backlash by giving nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Finally, Pakistan’s history of shady nuclear dealings would, paradoxically, make Islamabad more sensitive to a potential Western backlash. Pakistan acquired its own nuclear weapons capabilities on the grey market and then allowed those technologies to proliferate to some of the world’s most dangerous regimes via the A.Q. Khan network. However, it is precisely because of this past behavior – and lingering concerns in the West – that the Pakistani government has become more concerned over time about the likely negative international consequences of further illicit nuclear transfers. For these reasons, the Pakistanis have taken aggressive steps to shut down the A.Q. Khan network. Islamabad has reorganized its security bureaucracy to tighten control over its nuclear weapons, and the government has placed stringent export controls on technology, material, and equipment that might contribute to designing, developing, stockpiling or using nuclear weapons.

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