One morning, perhaps in the not too distant future, the President of the United States may wake up to an announcement that, given new dangers in the Middle East, the Saudi government has requested the stationing of Pakistani troops on Saudi soil. The announcement might go on to explain that these troops will also bring with them the full complement of conventional and strategic weapons necessary to ensure their security and that of Saudi Arabia. Word would quickly follow from Islamabad that Pakistan has accepted a generous aid package and low-priced oil from Saudi Arabia. Both parties would stress that the agreement simply reaffirms their decades-long special relationship.
We should not dismiss this scenario as a plot worthy of a Tom Clancy novel. As Iran becomes more dangerous and the United States becomes more reluctant to engage in military missions overseas, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia may indeed find that renewed military and nuclear cooperation is the best way to secure their interests. As the United States re-examines its military posture toward South Asia and the Middle East in the context of its withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, it must explicitly consider the possibility of a Saudi-Pakistan nuclear bargain. The failure to take such a scenario seriously could promote its occurrence.
This essay rehearses that exercise. First, we will examine why Riyadh and Islamabad might be interested in such a deal. Second, we will show that the United States would have few coercive levers to dissuade Saudi Arabia or Pakistan from such a course. Third, we will argue that such an infelicitous outcome will be rendered even more likely if the United States further disengages from South Asia or the Middle East, or if it fails to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Finally, we will assess the particular difficulties a Saudi-Pakistan nuclear weapons bargain poses for advocates of U.S. strategic restraint in the coming decades.1
ver the past decade, Saudi Arabia’s threat perception has sharpened as the dangers from Iran have grown along with doubts about the reliability of U.S. protection. Saudi-Iranian relations have historically been uneven since the modern Saudi state coalesced in the 1930s, but the 1979 Iranian Revolution propelled the relationship sharply downward. An energetic, charismatic, theocratic Shi‘a leadership in Tehran particularly threatened the Saudi regime, which depends on its special religious status as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and expects Shi‘a quiescence.
Iranian efforts to export the Islamic revolution among the region’s Shi‘a populations were especially discomfiting to Saudi Arabia, given that its restive Shi‘a are inconveniently based in al-Hasa province, the...