Colin Kahl

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Colin Kahl

The Diplomat’s Zachary Keck recently spoke with Colin Kahl, Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, about the recent report he co-authored (with Matthew Irvine and Melissa Dalton) Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?

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.

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.

Although warning that it would be costly for the U.S. to provide a nuclear umbrella to Saudi Arabia, you and your co-authors ultimately conclude this would be preferable to Pakistan being Riyadh’s nuclear guarantor. Were the U.S. to provide Saudi Arabia with a nuclear umbrella do you believe this would require deploying nuclear weapons to Saudi territory as in Europe, or could Washington rely on offshore forces as in Asia? Why?

Operationally, extending a nuclear umbrella over Saudi Arabia would probably not require deploying U.S. nuclear weapons on Saudi soil; offshore capabilities would likely be sufficient. Such deployments could conceivably be seen as necessary to politically and symbolically reassure the Saudis of the U.S. commitment. However, the political feasibility of such a deployment is questionable, both in Washington and in Riyadh. If the parties determined that a forward deployment was essential for the credibility of an extended deterrence pledge, it is more likely that there would be deployments elsewhere in the Gulf or periodic military exercises in the region involving nuclear-capable U.S. forces. These nuclear moves would likely be combined with the continued forward presence of U.S. conventional forces to serve as a “trip wire” aimed at enhancing the credibility of American military involvement in the event of Iranian aggression.

In arguing that Saudi Arabia is less likely to acquire nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear-armed Iran than is often assumed, you and your co-authors point out that the threat of a nuclear tipping point or nuclear cascade has been greatly exaggerated historically. In your opinion why has this fear of “reactive proliferation” persisted in U.S. policy circles for decades despite so much evidence to the contrary? How can Washington take a more nuanced view?

This argument persists in large part because the compelling historical evidence against it is rarely raised in public debate. In the context of the ongoing policy discussions over the implications of Iranian nuclearization, our report tries to correct this problem. A second reason for the prevalence of fears of “falling nuclear dominoes” in policy circles is the magnitude of the consequences associated with a cascade, or even limited reactive proliferation, if it actually occurs. Even if the odds of this scenario are low, a small risk of a multipolar nuclear Middle East is widely viewed as unacceptable.

In Washington there seems to be a strong consensus that the U.S. should undertake surgical air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities should sanctions fail to persuade it to agree to the P5+1’s terms. At the same time, most observers agree this would only slow Iran’s nuclear program by a few years.  It seems to me, then, that this would essentially commit the U.S. to what the Israelis call “mowing the grass”— i.e. a strategy of periodically conducting air strikes for an indefinite time period. Do you foresee this as a potential risk and, if so, what might this mean for the Asia pivot?

President Obama is right to keep the military option “on the table.” But most analysts see the use of force as a highly undesirable outcome, which is why it should remain a last resort. U.S. defense officials have noted on many occasions that military strikes could set the Iranian program back a number of years, but strikes would not permanently resolve the problem if Iran decided to reconstitute their program. Therefore, in the aftermath of a U.S. or Israeli strike, it would be imperative to hold together an international coalition to continue to economically and diplomatically isolate Iran, making it more difficult for Tehran to rebuild their nuclear infrastructure. And maintaining a large number of U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf would likely be required to contain Iran, and potentially re-strike the program—just as U.S. forces contained Saddam Hussein and sought to degrade Iraq’s ability to rebuild its WMD program for more than a decade after the 1991 Gulf War.