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01.02.11

Iran's Nuclear Domino Effect

A former Bush defense official says that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan might initiate a dangerous alliance if Iran develops nuclear weapons. Andrew Roberts speaks to Eric Edelman about the unintended consequences for South Asia.

Might the impending nuclearization of Iran rapidly lead to a situation in which India targets nuclear weapons on Saudi Arabia? That is one of the many unnerving repercussions envisaged in an authoritative article, “The Dangers of a Nuclear Iran,” in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, written by, among others, Eric Edelman, President George W. Bush’s undersecretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009. When an analyst of Edelman’s seniority and ability, who moreover was working in the Pentagon with full access to all the available intelligence on precisely this issue as recently as two years ago, pronounces on questions of this gravity it behooves us to pay serious attention.

Writing under the auspices of the high-powered defense think tank the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Edelman and two colleagues examine the ramifications of Saudi Arabia attempting swiftly to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan the moment that it is clear that Iran has them. He reports “rumors that Riyadh and Islamabad have had discussions involving nuclear weapons, nuclear technology, or security guarantees.” Now, people who have held jobs as sensitive as Edelman’s do not report “rumors” in a respected journal like Foreign Affairs unless they believe them to be very much more than that.

Both in the article and more fully in an interview I have conducted with him today, Edelman sets out his thinking on a subject that should have very profound implications for decision-making in the Obama administration as it considers the long-term ramifications of permitting Iran to go nuclear. For although we can all see the primary and perhaps also the secondary implications for security in the Middle East of the so-called containment strategy, the United States must now ponder the long-term tertiary and even later consequences. One of these must be what Edelman terms “the Islamabad option,” by which the Saudis and Pakistanis would effectively enter into an offensive-defensive “dual-key” nuclear arrangement, rather like the one the U.S. has had with Britain from the late-1960s to the present day.

The Saudis have already indicated privately—and WikiLeaks has done nothing to cast doubt on this—that when what Edelman terms “the nuclear cascade” is unleashed once Iran goes nuclear, they will be in the first wave. “Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin,” says Edelman, “the key country.” The extremely close links between the two Sunni countries Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which go back at least as far as 1979 when Pakistan helped to clear Islamic fundamentalists out of the Grand Mosque, and A.Q. Khan’s time in Saudi Arabia at precisely the time when his nuclear-proliferation ring was at its most active, invite what Edelman guardedly calls “speculation” that a mutually convenient arrangement would be arrived at very soon after Iran went nuclear.

“We in the West have gotten fat, dumb, and happy when contemplating a relatively stable nuclear Southern Asia over the past decade. It might not stay like that.”

“Pakistan could sell operational nuclear weapons and delivery systems to Saudi Arabia,” states Edelman, “or it could provide the Saudis with the infrastructure, material, and the technical support they need to produce nuclear weapons themselves within a matter of years, as opposed to a decade or longer.” The Saudis might not even, technically at least, be violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if the weapons remained operated by the Pakistanis, albeit on Saudi territory. Nor does Congress consider this all to be mere “speculation” either: The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Staff Report of February 2008 stated that there was “some circumstantial evidence” to suggest that an agreement of some sort might already exist between the two countries.

Where Edelman goes an important stage further than anyone else is in considering the instability that would inevitably result in Southern Asia if Pakistan gained the capability in Saudi Arabia to withstand a first strike from India’s nuclear arsenal. “To have a second-strike capability against India would give Pakistan a huge benefit,” he told me. “It would be very troublesome for the Indians, who would face a far more complex nuclear picture. We in the West have gotten fat, dumb, and happy when contemplating a relatively stable nuclear Southern Asia over the past decade. It might not stay like that.” With Pakistan already ahead of India in nuclear weapons technology, especially in delivery capabilities, Edelman believes that the Islamabad option will make the nuclear situation in South Asia significantly more dangerous.

The New Year is a good time to try to look one, five, even 10 years into the future. While we can see some of the obvious ramifications of a nuclear Iran clearly enough, there are many others that are not so obvious, indeed they may be located many hundreds of miles away from Teheran, but which are no less nerve-wracking to consider.

Historian Andrew Roberts' latest book, Masters and Commanders, was published in the U.K. in September. His previous books include Napoleon and Wellington, Hitler and Churchill, and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.