The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The Pak-Saudi Nuke, and How to Stop It

If Iran does get the bomb, there is a tight logic to military cooperation between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to match it. U.S. options for preventing a Pak-Saudi nuke may diminish sharply over time.

Published on June 10, 2012

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

Riyadh’s Fears


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 region where the bulk of Saudi oil reserves lie. Such efforts spurred Saudi Arabia and five other neighboring Arab states to form the Gulf Cooperation Council just two years after the Iranian Revolution. As Iran facilitated the development of violent non-state actors like Hizballah and supported others throughout the 1980s, the Saudis grew increasingly concerned. Riyadh robustly supported Iraq in its eight-year war against Iran, and organized support for Baghdad throughout the region. 

Iranian efforts to undermine the Saudi monarchy and challenge its regional role have persisted. Because of Iran’s support for violent non-state actors in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, as well as its worryingly tight partnership with the Syrian regime, the Saudis continue to view Iran as a problematic actor working against their interests across the board. Flashy examples of Iranian attempts to do so abound, including reports that Iran trained the Saudis who conducted the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing and the recent plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir1.

Saudi leaders, therefore, pointedly focus on Iran as the Kingdom’s primary regional threat. Yet countering Iran is dicey for Riyadh given Iran’s heavy reliance on irregular warfare capabilities. Tehran possesses a weak conventional military, plagued by archaic materiel and limited in its ability to project power. Indeed, a few years ago, General David Petraeus, then Commander of the U.S. Central Command, quipped that the “the Emirati Air Force itself could take out the entire Iranian Air Force.”2

Iran’s comparative advantage, however, lies in the field of unconventional warfare. Iran’s relationship with violent non-state actors—a relationship developed and maintained through the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps—is robust and deep. While Saudi Arabia spends three or four times what Iran spends on defense, according to one estimate, it remains flummoxed about how to effectively counter Iran’s asymmetrical strengths.3 Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s vigorous and substantial support to Bahrain over the past year or so (as the Sunni Bahraini royal family countered repeated protests by the majority Shi‘a population) was as much about a proxy battle with Iran as it was about helping an ally in need.

Unsurprisingly, Iran’s nuclear program acutely worries Riyadh, and over the past decade Saudi Arabia has become increasingly blunt about its concerns—and how it plans to alleviate them. For years, there have been whisperings and anonymous reports that senior Saudi officials were deliberating about acquiring nuclear capability or access to nuclear weapons.4 But in the past few months, Saudi rhetoric has shifted key. Earlier this year, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence and Ambassador to the United States, suggested that, although Saudi Arabia was hesitant about acquiring nuclear weapons capability, it might be forced to do so given the dynamic and dangerous region it inhabits: “We’re not the only players in town”, he warned, urging the Gulf states to “study carefully all the options, including the option of acquiring weapons of mass destruction. We can’t simply leave it for somebody else to decide for us.”5 Just a few weeks later, an unnamed senior Saudi official declared, “Politically, it would be completely unacceptable to have Iran with a nuclear capability and not the kingdom.”6 Such statements differ markedly from the relatively passive public statements made by Saudi officials on this topic up until last year.  

Islamabad’s Needs 


n the coming years, Pakistani leaders may also confront a series of problems that a closer relationship with Saudi Arabia might ameliorate. Since 2001, Pakistan’s military has struggled with how to marshal and allocate resources to combat the traditional threat posed by a more powerful India, the redoubled threat posed by anti-government radical groups, and the potential threat posed by a transforming Afghanistan. Pakistani elites often view these threats as interlinked: U.S. policy toward Afghanistan has midwifed and sustained what they perceive as an anti-Pakistani regime in Kabul, and Pakistan’s grudging support of that policy has fomented anti-government militancy within Pakistan. 

For a host of reasons, all indications suggest that the United States will sharply scale down its military presence in Afghanistan by mid-2013. The Pakistan military’s expectations of a forthcoming exit have led it to maintain ties to the Afghan Taliban and other Pashtun militant groups in order to retain influence in a post-U.S. Afghanistan. Pakistan’s perception of American unreliability has been in large part self-fulfilling, since Islamabad’s hedging strategy worsened conditions in Afghanistan and thus made U.S. withdrawal more likely. A renewed civil war in Afghanistan might once again attract disgruntled Pakistanis, lessening their focus on the shortcomings of the ruling government in Islamabad. Similarly, with the United States less worried about insurgent networks operating from Pakistani territory, Pakistan may feel more comfortable reaching deals with its own Pashtun insurgency in the tribal areas, lessening the large-scale and controversial Pakistan Army troop presence on the western border. 

If Pakistan is able to sufficiently manage these multiple security threats, it can renew its traditional emphasis on India. Given India’s size and faster growing economy, the Pakistani military will have trouble keeping up in this race. Further, in the absence of a large-scale troop presence in Afghanistan, U.S. lawmakers will probably be more skeptical of providing large quantities of military aid that indirectly subsidizes Pakistan’s conventional military competition with India. To be sure, the Pakistani government could extract greater resources from Pakistani society (less than 2 percent of Pakistanis currently pay income taxes),7 but finding another patron to replace the United States may be more attractive. 

Since independence, Pakistan has relied on the unlikely trio of Saudi Arabia, the United States and China for political, military and financial support. The United States has engaged Pakistan repeatedly in its efforts to contain the Soviet Union, to roll back the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan and, most recently, to stabilize Afghanistan. In coming years, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is likely to falter as America’s ambitions in Afghanistan diminish, while the Sino-Pakistani and Saudi-Pakistani relationships are likely to grow. China’s strategic relationship with Pakistan is durable in that Beijing seeks to maintain a counterweight to India and to ensure that Pakistan is not a source of radicalism for China’s Muslim population in Xinjiang. 

Saudi Arabia’s interest in Pakistani success is more complicated. The relationship has been more transactional than the Sino-Pakistani friendship and, very much unlike it, is in part a product of U.S. encouragement. Washington cast Pakistan in the role of an eastern defense anchor in the anti-Soviet Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), with American policymakers explicitly drawing a connection with the British reliance on military manpower from the subcontinent to defend the Middle East during the world wars.8 When Pakistani leaders approached King Saud in 1954 about proceeding with what would become the CENTO pact, the King was equivocal: He stated his assessment that the United States had proven unreliable in its relations with the Kingdom, but went on to say, “We will be happy if Pakistan will be stronger no doubt.” The Saudi King then expressed Saudi Arabia’s interest in Pakistan’s success: “Pakistan’s strength is our strength and if the Jews have attacked on the holy land then Pakistan will be in the front of the defenders of the Haramain [two holy lands of Mecca and Medina] as it was promised.”9

The Pakistan Army and Air Force began extended training missions to Arab countries in the 1960s. Pakistan Air Force personnel engaged in combat missions in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War; indeed, Pakistani airmen received awards for downing Israeli planes.10 Pakistani pilots also likely participated in Royal Saudi Air Force missions against Soviet-backed South Yemen in 1969.11 In return for Pakistan’s past support, a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, provided planes to Pakistan at the request of the United States during Pakistan’s disastrous 1971 war with India.12 Although Pakistan Air Force personnel played a minimal role in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Pakistani airmen operating in the Syrian Air Force claim to have been involved in air combat with Israel in 1974.13

The 1980s were the high water mark of Saudi-Pakistan security cooperation, as well as Pakistan’s military engagement abroad. By 1981, Pakistan was the second-leading supplier of military manpower globally, with troop deployments or training missions in 22 countries.14 Saudi Arabia was one of them. After the external shock of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the internal scare triggered by the two-week takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in the late fall of that year, Saudi Arabia sought to quickly buttress its conventional military capacity. It turned to Pakistan, which was already providing 3,000 military advisers to Saudi Arabia by 1980.15 That force grew over the 1980s, though its ultimate size remains unclear. As a lower estimate, at least one Pakistani armored brigade, perhaps a force of 3,000–5,000, was based at Tabuk in northwest Saudi Arabia from 1982 to 1988.16 Several contemporary and historical accounts suggest the total force was closer to two divisions, perhaps 20,000 men, though President Zia and other Pakistani officials repeatedly denied that the force was that size.17 There were contemporaneous reports of Pakistan Air Force deployments to Saudi Arabia as well.18 If the 20,000 figure is accurate, the scale of this security commitment becomes even more impressive, since it amounted to roughly 5 percent of the total end strength of the Pakistani Army in the 1980s. Since there were two rotations of Pakistani personnel in Saudi Arabia, up to 40,000 troops may have been deployed to Saudi Arabia during this time period.19

In exchange, Saudi Arabia reportedly increased aid to Pakistan from $200 million annually to $800 million–$1 billion (about $2.3 billion in current dollars).20 The bulk of Pakistani troops left in 1988, reportedly over a Saudi request that no Pakistani Shi‘a troops serve in the Kingdom, a demand that the Pakistan Army refused. There may also have been a disagreement about whether Pakistani troops could be used against Iran or Iraq rather than Israel.21 In addition to this extensive military cooperation on Saudi territory, Saudi Arabia played an important, well-documented role as financial contributor to the joint Pakistani and U.S. effort to train and equip anti-Soviet mujaheddin in Afghanistan during this period, further strengthening political and military links between Riyadh and Islamabad.22


ess well documented but often alleged is extensive Saudi financial support to the Pakistani nuclear program in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as more recent evidence to suggest continued Saudi interest in Pakistani nuclear developments. An unnamed Pakistani source told two reporters that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto solicited more than $500 million (about $2.5 billion in current dollars) from Arab states in the early 1970s, with the two principal funders being Qaddafi’s Libya and Saudi Arabia.23 A trade journal, Nucleonics Week, reported in the late 1970s that Saudi Arabia offered to finance the construction of a reprocessing facility at Chashma in exchange for Pakistani training of Saudi scientists on nuclear power.24

Saudi interest and aid did not stop in the 1980s. More recently, Saudi Arabia pledged to provide and defer payment on 50,000 barrels of oil per day (or about one-sixth of Pakistan’s total oil imports) to Nawaz Sharif’s government to defray the costs of threatened U.S. sanctions as it considered whether to follow India’s May 1998 nuclear tests with one of its own.25 A joint tour of Khan Research Laboratories in 2003 by then-Saudi Defense Minister (and later Crown Prince) Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attracted considerable international attention, though Sultan subsequently said that he did not visit “the secret parts” of the facility.26

Journalists who write on Pakistan’s nuclear program regularly speculate about an implicit or explicit guarantee of Saudi access to Pakistan’s nuclear technology in exchange for this past support, and they normally find abundant anonymous quotations to buttress their claims. Writing in 2003, the Guardian reported that Saudi Arabia was considering acquiring nuclear weapons, or perhaps seeking protection by maintaining its alliance with a nuclear power (presumably the United States), or entering into an alliance with a nuclear power (presumably Pakistan).27 A UN official in Vienna, where the International Atomic Energy Agency is headquartered, reportedly said: “Regional insecurity tends to produce a quest for a nuclear umbrella. The Saudis have the money and could provide it to Pakistan.” The BBC’s Gordon Correra suggested of the 1998 Saudi oil offer:

In return for not asking for payment for oil imports, it is suspected in some quarters that Saudi Arabia received an ‘option’ on the Pakistan program and was placed under a Pakistani nuclear ‘security umbrella’, perhaps with guarantees to use weapons on Saudi Arabia’s behalf if required or to pass on technology.28 

Correra is perhaps unconsciously echoing an anonymous U.S. official who told the Financial Times in 2004 that outright Saudi purchase of nuclear weapons technology from Pakistan was unlikely. Instead, this official suggested, a “lend-lease arrangement” was more probable.29

The point of this evidence is not to prove that a Saudi-Pakistan nuclear deal has occurred, but rather that it is plausible and needs to be taken into account in the formulation of U.S. policy. Bruce Riedel, a former intelligence and policy official and key adviser on South Asia early in the Obama Administration, suggested in a recent article that the Pakistani and Saudi militaries may have exercised the deployment of nuclear warheads to Saudi Arabia and references “reports” that the Saudis maintain aircraft in Pakistan on standby for an urgent nuclear transport mission. Riedel concluded his review of the evidence: “Does Saudi Arabia have a secret commitment from Pakistan for nuclear weapons if the Kingdom feels threatened by Iran? The answer is we don’t know but there is considerable evidence to suggest Riyadh and Islamabad have at least discussed such an understanding.”30

We concur with this general conclusion, even if we are skeptical of some of Riedel’s evidence. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have undertaken extensive security cooperation in the past—to a degree that is uncommon even among close allies. There is also evidence, less compelling but abundant, that this cooperation included extensive Saudi funding for Pakistan’s nuclear efforts. Explicit nuclear umbrellas and similar forms of nuclear weapons cooperation have been rare historically; however, the Saudi-Pakistan relationship is also intimate to a rare degree. Nawaf Obeid, an advisor to the Saudi government, suggested in 2004, “We gave money and [the Pakistanis] dealt with it as they saw fit. . . . There’s no documentation, but there is an implicit understanding that on everything, in particular on security and military issues, Pakistan would be there for Saudi Arabia.”31 Pakistani diplomat Shahid Amin, formerly Ambassador in Riyadh, argues:

The Saudis realize Pakistan’s continued importance in the region and the Islamic world. Pakistan’s nuclear capability is an additional reason. More importantly, the Saudis regard Pakistan as a trustworthy friend who will come to Saudi Arabia’s assistance whenever the occasion arises. This includes any requirement for strengthening the internal security of the Saudi regime.32 

A Likely Arrangement 


 cursory glance at nuclear powers around the globe illustrates that Saudi Arabia maintains intimate ties to only two: the United States and Pakistan. Riyadh has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with France, Argentina, South Korea and China, and is discussing the prospects of future agreements with the United States, Great Britain and Russia, among others.33 Such agreements and negotiations, however, are necessarily limited to civil cooperation, which would have limited utility if Iran were to go nuclear. While the U.S.-Saudi partnership is close and has survived a series of traumatic events over the years—including 9/11—it has its limits. Particularly in light of the regional upheaval over the past year, the relationship is being redefined and recalibrated. While the two states maintain cooperation on the primary regional threats—transnational terrorism and Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program and terrorist activity—the Saudis remain acutely perturbed by their perception that Washington dismissed its close ally in Cairo, and Washington remains discomfited by Saudi intervention in Bahrain. 

Therefore, Pakistan is the most likely state to assist Saudi Arabia should it choose to go down this path. Yet Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the comprehensive safeguards agreement. Such entrenched and declared policies would no doubt make it uncomfortable for Riyadh to pivot away to join the nuclear club. 

Conveniently, an alternative option exists: a close ally possessing nuclear weapons capability could choose to relocate some of its stock on Saudi territory. The United States was careful to craft the Nonproliferation Treaty to allow for “dual key” arrangements that give an ally shared launch authority. So long as a state does not have the independent authority to launch a nuclear weapon, the NPT did not prohibit deployment in a foreign territory, even if a defense arrangement gave a state shared responsibility over employment of the weapon. Further still, in the event of war, the United States maintained that the NPT would no longer be “controlling”; hence, its strictures on nuclear transfer could be ignored. Shared control could quickly morph into independent authority in the event of full-scale conflict. This interpretation of the treaty was central to the U.S.-NATO nuclear sharing arrangement in the Cold War and would be difficult for the United States to renounce in the future.34 Should nuclear materiel remain under at least shared Pakistani control in peacetime, the Saudis would have effectively joined the nuclear club without violating the NPT. 

There are multiple factors that, independently or in concert, might make covert or overt Pakistan-Saudi nuclear weapons cooperation more likely. First, and most important, Iranian nuclear progress is of paramount concern to Riyadh. Saudi leaders fear that a nuclear-armed Iran might take advantage of the so-called “stability-instability paradox”, in which fears of nuclear weapons use make all-out war unlikely but in the process make low-level conflict more likely. This phenomenon may be more apparent if the nuclear-armed power is revisionist and tolerant of risk. Even if Iran is a rational actor unlikely to employ nuclear weapons, other states might be wary of conventional military action against Iran that could spiral out of control. Given Saudi Arabia’s significant Shi‘a population and past history of Iranian-sponsored terrorism on its soil, Riyadh’s fear of limited conflict and proxy violence is understandable. 

Second, in the context of Iranian nuclearization, if Israel were to chose to make its nuclear weapons status overt, this might help Pakistani elites to justify the decision to their public and facilitate both Saudi and Pakistani interest in nuclear sharing. 

Third, if the U.S.-Saudi security relationship were to break down, the Saudis might feel that any Western security guarantee, implicit or explicit, was insufficiently credible to manage the Iranian threat. In the context of U.S. domestic fatigue with foreign commitments, and future U.S.-Saudi conflict over democracy in the Middle East or some other issue, it is not impossible to imagine a U.S.-Saudi security relationship that no longer comforts Riyadh. 

Finally, it is much more likely that Pakistan will provide nuclear weapons technology if it is seeking to replace U.S. aid following a possible future rupture in the relationship. A U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, which will make ground lines of communication and aerial overflight corridors in Pakistan far less critical to U.S. national interests, will certainly lower the barriers to another “divorce” in the relationship. 

 To gain a sense of scale: U.S. aid to Islamabad is equivalent to approximately 6.5 percent of the Pakistani government’s budget.35 Were the United States to cut off aid to Pakistan, and particularly if the United States used its leverage at the World Bank or International Monetary Fund to attenuate the support of those institutions, Pakistan would be thrown into a major fiscal crisis. While Pakistan could curtail public spending—particularly military spending—or increase tax revenues, it just as likely could avoid making those tough decisions by trying to find a new patron. 

Only two patrons could possibly replace such substantial U.S. funding: China and Saudi Arabia. Islamabad is likely to turn to both for help. China’s interest in Pakistan is twofold: for maintaining a counterweight to India to complicate Delhi’s regional ambitions, and for preserving stability in China’s Muslim West. It would have the leverage, assuming continued aid, to block a Pakistan-Saudi transfer, but given China’s own past provision of ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia (ostensibly for conventional payloads) in the 1980s and possibly again more recently, there is no prima facie reason to expect Beijing to scuttle a Pakistani-Saudi nuclear accord.36 China has already demonstrated that it believes providing Saudi Arabia with weapons of proliferation concern is acceptable behavior. 

Implications for U.S. Strategy 


ashington’s ability to prevent or reverse a Pakistani-Saudi nuclear agreement markedly diminishes once implementation is underway. Pakistan is most likely to consider such a move after the United States has withdrawn financial support. In that case, the United States will have already pulled its largest coercive lever. If the United States has not already stopped aid to Pakistan, then Washington will probably perceive Islamabad as playing a vital role in either continuing the U.S. mission in Afghanistan or in permitting counter-terror operations against groups operating in Pakistan’s undergoverned western border areas. In other words, in the future, the United States will have either already used its primary leverage against Pakistan, or it will be reluctant to do so for fear of harming other vital interests. Meanwhile, sanctioning Saudi Arabia is a non-starter, particularly because the United States will be even more reliant on Saudi production to offset the tightening sanctions regime against Iran.

If it will be difficult for the United States to deter a Pakistani-Saudi arrangement through threats of punishment, then U.S. strategy must emphasize dissuasion or prevention of Iranian nuclear acquisition, because this is by far the most important driver of Saudi interest in a nuclear weapons capability. This is not the place to analyze the costs and benefits of using force to degrade Iran’s nuclear complex, but we do believe the debate has been oversimplified. At its core, military action would likely delay Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability for some finite period of time, but it would also increase Iran’s incentive to pursue that goal. In other words, a military attack would lessen the likelihood of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons in the near or medium term, at the cost of making it more likely in the long run. In the near and medium term, it might provoke Iranian attempts to frighten the international oil market by meddling in the Strait of Hormuz, stirring up trouble in Saudi oil-producing areas, encouraging its proxies in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan to target U.S. interests, and other troublesome behavior. Military action against Iran might also complicate efforts to build consensus on Syria, perhaps enabling the survival of the Assad regime. While none of these costs are apocalyptically high, the benefits of a preventive strike are also not overwhelmingly positive. But military action against Iran, by delaying Iranian nuclear acquisition, could also delay a Saudi-Pakistan nuclear cooperative arrangement. 

The debate about military options on Iran has focused on the extent to which Tehran can be deterred, but it’s just as important to consider the knock-on proliferation consequences of an Iranian bomb. The path for Saudi nuclearization is readily apparent and could occur rapidly—within months or years, not decades. Analyses that perceive Iranian nuclearization as manageable typically discount the possibility of quick Saudi acquisition of nuclear weapons. In this vein, at least 11 other Middle Eastern states have developed varying levels of interest in nuclear technology over the past decade or so.37 Few, however, could move as quickly as Saudi Arabia.

Stopping a proliferation chain reaction need not require preventive military strikes. Robust U.S. security guarantees to Saudi Arabia might dampen Saudi demand for a nuclear deterrent. But making these guarantees credible could prove challenging. Extended deterrence is inherently difficult. A state is attempting to guarantee that it will endanger its most vital interests (risk nuclear attacks on its homeland) in order to protect more peripheral interests (prevent conventional or nuclear attacks on a third-party state). In the Cold War, the United States relied on overseas basing to demonstrate its commitment. By placing U.S. forces in harm’s way, it not only increased military options in the region, but also made the U.S. commitment more credible. As Thomas Schelling famously argued, “What can 7,000 American troops do [in Berlin], or 12,000 Allied troops? Bluntly, they can die.”38 In the Saudi case, however, the experience of the 1990s and 2000s suggests that a substantial U.S. military presence may generate a great deal of popular resentment and thus prove unsustainable. Indeed, the United States may have more options basing U.S. troops on the Saudi Arabian periphery. To some extent, it already does in Bahrain (home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet) and Qatar (location of Al Udeid airbase). The United States clearly hopes the newly inaugurated U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum will provide another way to demonstrate “the rock-solid commitment of the United States to the people and nations of the Gulf.”39

It remains possible that the Obama Administration’s emphasis on ever-stronger economic sanctions, perhaps combined with covert action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and scientists, might prevent Iranian nuclearization. If it doesn’t, however, then analysts and policymakers must incorporate the risk of rapid Saudi nuclearization into their calculus regarding Iran. Moreover, given Pakistan’s intrinsic importance as a large, Muslim, nuclear-armed state, U.S. policymakers should be wary of backing Islamabad into a corner in which its elites see risky behavior as necessary. As frustrating and provocative as Pakistan is to the United States, isolating it could easily backfire. Moreover, the desirability of curtailing U.S. support for Pakistan is not solely a function of that nation’s support for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan or counter-terror efforts in Pakistan, but may instead be a function of proliferation fears for the indefinite future. For that reason, too, the United States should exercise great caution in substantially reducing its regional presence, lest it set loose a set of interlocking responses from regional actors that would be extremely dangerous for all concerned. 

1James Risen and Jane Perlez, “Terrorism and Iran: Washington’s Policy Performs a Gingerly Balancing Act”, New York Times, June 23, 2001. Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, “Iranians Accused of a Plot to Kill Saudis’ U.S. Envoy”, New York Times, October 11, 2011.

2Josh Rogin, “Petraeus: The UAE’s Air Force Could Take Out Iran’s”, The Cable (Foreign Policy), December 17, 2009.

3Anthony Cordesman, “The Iran Primer: The Conventional Military”, (United States Institute of Peace, December 2010).

4Ewen MacAskill and Ian Traynor, “Saudis Consider Nuclear Bomb”, Guardian, September 18, 2003.

5Edith M. Lederer, “AP Interview: Saudi Warn of Mideast Nuclear Race”, Associated Press, January 25, 2012.

6Hugh Tomlinson, “Saudi Arabia Threatens to Go Nuclear ‘Within Weeks’ If Iran Gets the Bomb”, The Times (London), February 10, 2012.

7Sabrina Tavernise, “Pakistan’s Elite Pays Few Taxes, Widening Gap”, New York Times, July 18, 2010.

8See Hanson Baldwin, “Pakistan Looms Large in South Asia Defense”, New York Times, December 20, 1953.

9Letter from King Saud Ibn-e-Abdul Aziz to Governor-General Ghulam Mohammed, June 2, 1954, available at

10Royal Jordanian Air Force, “Cooperation with Other Air Forces”, available at; Pakistan Air Force, “Air Warriors”,; Pakistan Troops Reported in Jordan”, Washington Post, February 11, 1970; Dana Adams Schmidt, “Hussein Explains Guerrilla Accord”, New York Times, February 15, 1970; Jim Hoagland, “India Enters Gulf Rivalry, Trains Iraqis”, Washington Post, June 22, 1973.

11Bruce Reidel, “Saudi Arabia: Nervously Watching Pakistan”, The Brookings Institution, January 28, 2008.

12Steve Weissman and Herbert Krosney, The Islamic Bomb: The Nuclear Threat to Israel and the Middle East (Times Books, 1981), p. 52; Discussion with Huang Hua of South Asian Crisis, Memorandum of Conversation, December 10, 1971, Digital National Security Archive document no. KT00405.

13Group Captain Kaiser Tufail, “Shabhaz over Golan: The Saga of an Intrepid PAF Pilot Who Humbled the Israelis”, Defence Journal [Pakistan] (April 1999); Azeem Samar, “PAF Flyer Unveils Exploits in Arab-Israeli War”, News International (Islamabad), September 6, 2008; and a very brief mention of Pakistan Air Force combat roles in Air Cmde (ret.) Jamal Hussain, Airpower in South Asia [2003, perhaps self-published, provided by Hussain to author in Islamabad in 2005], 66–7.

14Michael T. Kaufman, “22 Countries Avail Themselves of Pakistani Soldiers”, New York Times, February 6, 1981. A 1981 interview with Zia elsewhere suggested that 27 countries might have hosted Pakistani military personnel in training or other roles. Carol Honsa, “Pakistan Boosting Its Gulf Security Force”, Christian Science Monitor, March 5, 1981.

15Michael T. Kaufman, “Pakistan Is No Longer Ardent Suiter, But the Prize”, New York Times, September 28, 1980.

16See Major Agha Humayan Amin (ret.) “Handling of Armour in Indo-Pak War: Pakistan Armoured Corps as a Case Study”, Defence Journal [Pakistan] (October 2000).

17See Brian Cloughley, A History of the Pakistan Army: Wars and Insurrections (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 286; “22 Countries Avail…”, New York Times, February 6, 1981; Richard Burt, “Pakistan Said to Base Troops on Saudi Soil”, New York Times, August 20, 1980.

18Geoffrey Godsell, “Pakistani Forces Shore Up Saudis – But Trouble Bubble at Home”, Christian Science Monitor, February 20, 1981.

19Shuja Nawaz, Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 386.

20Contemporary sources intermittently report the $800 million–$1 billion figure as annual. None explicitly say lump sum, but only some of the news articles are explicit about the timeframe of the aid.

21“Saudis to Send Pakistani Unit Back Home, Countries Diverging on Reaction to Iran”, Washington Post, November 28, 1987; Cloughley, A History of the Pakistan Army, p. 289; Nawaz, Crossed Swords, p. 386

22Nawaz interviewed Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud who commented at points on the record in Crossed Swords; also George Crile, Charlie Wilson’s War (Grove Press, 2003), esp. pp. 236–9; and Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden (Penguin 2004), chapter 4.

23Weissman and Krosney, The Islamic Bomb, p. 61.

24Nucleonics Week, cited in Weissman and Krosney, The Islamic Bomb, p. 167.

25Farhan Bokhari, et al, “Saudi Oil Money Joins Forces with a Nuclear Pakistan”, Financial Times, August 5, 2004.

26Gordon Corera, Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A. Q. Khan Network (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 97.

27Ewan MacAskill and Ian Traynor, “Saudis Consider Nuclear Bomb”, Guardian, September 18, 2003.

28Correra, Shopping for Bombs, p. 254.

29Bokhari et al, “Saudi Oil Money Joins Forces with a Nuclear Pakistan.”

30Bruce Riedel, “Enduring Allies: Pakistan’s Partnership with Saudi Arabia Runs Deeper”, Force [New Delhi], December 2011.

31Riedel, “Enduring Allies.”

32Amin, Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: A Reappraisal (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 135.

33Summer Said, “Saudi Arabia-China Sign Nuclear Cooperation Pact”, Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2012.

34For useful discussions, see U.S. State Department commentary at “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons”; and British Foreign and Commonwealth Office analysis at Brian Donnelly, “The Nuclear Weapons Non-Proliferation Articles I, II and VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.”

35K. Alan Kronstadt, “Pakistan-U.S. Relations: A Summary”, CRS Report, no. R41832  Congressional Research Service, October 21, 2011, p. 38.

36See Jeffrey Lewis, “Saudi Missile Claims”, (June 8, 2010) for a review of the evidence regarding prior and more current missile sales.

37They are Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Middle East and North Africa 1540 Reporting”, (April 1, 2011).

38Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (Yale University Press, 1966), p. 47.

39Karen DeYoung, “Clinton Meets With Gulf Nations Over Missile Defense”, Washington Post, March 30, 2012; U.S. Department of State, “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Remarks with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal”, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, available at

Christopher Clary and Mara E. Karlin served as Defense Department policy advisers on South Asia and the Middle East, respectively.