SINCE THE TRUMP Trump administration’s May 2017 decision to terminate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, many have speculated that the Islamic Republic of Iran will soon resume its nuclear weapons program in response to renewed U.S. unilateral financial and economic sanctions. Even so, the current conventional wisdom is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—enjoying Washington’s fulsome political and military support for its regional strategic objectives—will have little interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.
But what if that assumption is wrong? Under what circumstances might Saudi Arabia, currently being led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), conclude that the clandestine and rapid acquisition of a nuclear arsenal would help address the challenges the country faces? In the following pages, I outline how such a scenario would unfold and detail how governments would likely respond to the emergence of a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia.
IT HAS been a basic U.S. assumption since the mid-1960s that powerful geostrategic friends and allies can be dissuaded from acquiring nuclear weapons so long as they feel secure as the result of an explicit or implicit U.S. extended deterrent against their enemies. The credibility of that commitment depends on both U.S. military forces serving as an instrument of credible extended deterrence and the political, economic and military support to the state in question. Although there has been no formal alliance between them, Washington and Riyadh have maintained a robust strategic partnership since the end of World War II. This partnership is based upon U.S. and European dependence on the free flow of petroleum out the Persian Gulf region at non-inflationary prices, along with Saudi Arabia’s relative military inability to fully provide for its own national defense. Even though the Trump administration has taken an enhanced stance to shore up this partnership via substantial arms sales and a tough geostrategic posture toward Iran, MbS may still opt to pursue other options to enhance his country’s national posture. This could occur due to the financial squeeze on the Saudi economy, faltering internal reform, a sense of regional encirclement by Iran, and an unwillingness of the United States and Israel to take decisive military action against Tehran.