Another Take on Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Agenda


Saudi nuclear graphic.jpgCongressman Markey is known to be one of the leading policy wonks in the US House of Representatives. His reputation for employing one of the largest numbers of PhD’s per capita on staff speaks to his interest in plumbing the intellectual depths of US policymaking, particularly US national security and nuclear policy. (It’s part of the reason he’s considered one of the leading candidates to eventually succeed Sen. Ted Kennedy).
While I have a great deal of respect for the gravitas and probity of Markey’s policy positions, I find myself disagreeing with him more often than not — most recently on his recent opinion article on Saudi Arabia in the Wall Street Journal. And though, Steve Clemons has already taken a first stab at the Markey article, there are still a number of assertions that need to be challenged.
First off, Markey makes a jab at the stability of the state and disingenuously suggests the prospect of revolution. He claims that tech transfers are dangerous citing previous cases where it ended up in the wrong hands, post the Iranian revolution. But despite the prognostications of neo-cons and their brethren (not to mention their accuracy) the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a relatively stable state, with a well-respected, pious, and progressive leader who is largely seen as legitimate in the eyes of his people. For one thing, rather than Instead of being installed through a US-led coup, his family unified the Arabian peninsula into a nation state. Though Saudi faces minor security threats from Al Qaeda in the near term and serious demographic and employment challenges in the long-term (both of which it is assiduously working to address) but nothing close to the popular discontent of the middle classes that fomented the 1979 Iranian revolution.
The use of language like “kingpin of the Sunni-Arab world” conveys a deep-seeded animus that is worrisome coming from one of America’s most progressive leaders. And his use of the hackneyed, clumsy phrase “America’s addiction to oil pays for the spread of extremism” betrays an impoverished understanding of what animates terrorist networks as well as Saudi Arabia’s recent about face, particularly after it became a prime target for this extremism in 2003.
Finally, though its true that nuclear assistance might be playing with fire, there seems to be a very legitimate strategic calculus to assisting the Saudi government — namely, signaling to Iran the cost of going nuclear. Right now Iran has conventional weapons superiority in the region but a drive to nuclear weapons that results in proliferation would eliminate their advantage through nuclear-provided strategic parity. If Iran actually believes that other states in the gulf region are ready and capable of also going nuclear, it might rethink its strategic calculations and turn back from weaponization. Certainly one must be wary of this spiraling into an arms race, but there is also a conceivable strategic logic to the moves being played by the US and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi and the GCC have already indicated interest in this nuclear project but also in dissuading Iran from its nuclear ambitions and ultimately developing a regional security architecture for the Gulf states as Thomas Lippman has argued. If some sort of Saudi/GCC peaceful nuclear venture is inevitable, its better the US be involved in guiding it — commanding greater influence and knowledge of capabilities — rather than China or Russia stepping in to assume the role of nuclear patron.
–Sameer Lalwani


7 comments on “Another Take on Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Agenda

  1. Mr.Murder says:

    Money Talks. Bush shit walks.
    Saudi Arabia and Israel are client states.
    During the Cold War years we could field test our weapons against those of the west and the east through client proxies. See also Israel/Egypt.
    The Falklands changed that. Technology surpasses size now.
    China is ahead of us in the technology realm with Satellites able to destroy other satellites by armed means.
    Thanks for losing the space race that matters most, Dumbsfeld.
    Hope you like paying for the Saudi Arms by our tax dollars and your visits to the gas pump. Cheney would like to thanks all of you on behalf of his portfolio, or even state the notion of umbrage at your lack of thankfulness that his profit margins supposedly keep you safe.
    The little people are so unthankful for what the good lord Cheney bestows upon them. Who else gets this kind of Freedom? The freedom to have others sap away America’s security and productivity at America’s expense.
    At least you don’t wait in line for bread all day like they still do in Moscow. Oh, you don’t buy hand made bread at the stores you go to? Word is that it’s worth the wait.
    Maybe one day our culture will use its freedom to take the time to buy our bread. The time used could allow us to make certain we’re not rushing into the wrong wars as well…. in the eman time those standing in line for fresh crafted bread can warn you about the idea of fighting campaigns in Afghanistan.
    Wonder if America will ever get it right?


  2. Dan Kervick says:

    I strongly disapprove of using nuclear assistance to Saudi Arabia as a way of sending some kind of “message” to Iran. The Bush administration has shown an interest in promoting a new Middle Eastern cold war, with a Saudi-anchored bloc lining up against an Iranian bloc. Americans need to get out of that business fast. We’re being played, and it will come to no good in the end.
    Saudi Arabia has a legitimate interest in developing a domestic nuclear power program, and I am perfectly willing to see the US assist with that program in exchange for the same sort of formal, rigorous and verifiable monitoring agreement sensible Americans should demand of *any* powers in that volatile region. To rest our confidence purely in the trust and say-so of an administration that is as deeply in bed with the Saudis as any in history, including long-term *personal* relationships at the highest levels of the US government with members of the top layer of the Saudi elite, is no way to make decisions in an area that is so vital to our long-term national security – the area of nuclear proliferation.
    Hopefully, future talks with Iran will result in a similar arrangement with Iran – a lifting of sanctions in exchange for a rigorous monitoring program. That’s the kind of consistent policy we need. There is nothing realistic about the Bush administration’s lax approach to nuclear proliferation, an approach that is too shortsighted in its underestimation of the ebbs and flows of global politics, is focussed only on a few enemies of the moment, and gives others a pass if they happen to be friendly toward us at the present time. Nuclear technology and nuclear tolerance aren’t things to be handed out like candy for agreeable immediate term behavior in the current geopolitical games.
    The US, and the rest of the world, needs to move toward a consistent nuclear policy for *all* of the countries in that region.
    And Markey is right. However stable and America-friendly Saudi Arabia might appear right now, the risk of future instability, or of a future change in the Kingdom’s geopolitical orientation, is too substantial to ignore.
    And by the way, Saudi Arabia is not “progressive” at all, except in the debased sense in which “progressive” means only “builds a lot of modern, shiny, expensive stuff.” Saudi Arabia is a monarchy – a true monarchy, and not just some sort of constitutional show monarchy. As such, it is a reactionary rump of backwardness in the modern world. A policy of mere modernization of one’s material infrastructure, and delivering economic goodies to one’s “subjects” from on high, is not the same thing as being “progressive”. Interestingly enough, Iran has a somewhat more democratic and representative system of government than Saudi Arabia, though Iran is also far from being “progressive”.


  3. JohnH says:

    Larisa Alexandrovna has a thoughtful commentary on the usual hypocrisy involved here: if you’re a friend of Uncle Sam (call us ‘amm Samir, we’re family), you get nuclear power, regardless of how despicable your regime might be. And good old ‘amm Samir will even sell it to you–it gives him something besides weapons to sell on world markets.
    But if you don’t genuflect properly before your masters, then you’ve proven yourself untrustworthy and undeserving…


  4. Steve Clemons says:

    kat — the answer is no, but this article was not my favorite from Ed Markey.
    best, Steve


  5. kat says:

    Are you and Steve on the Saudi payroll? Just had to ask. 🙂


  6. Nikolas K. Gvosdev says:

    Washington is slow to appreciate that it is not 1985 anymore. Saudi
    Arabia still wants to preserve an important tie with the United
    States but we are not the only game in town anymore. Moscow no
    longer threatens the kingdom and the rise of India and China open
    new possibilities. When Senator Schumer opined that if the Saudis
    didn’t pump more oil, the U.S. shouldn’t sell them weaponry, the
    Russians sent some of their arms representatives to pay a courtesy
    call in Riyadh. Sameer’s concluding point should be what guides
    the U.S. approach–as it should be with the U.S. – India nuclear
    deal, but as long as members of Congress still feel that we have
    nothing to gain by making deals with other states, then we’ll see
    more of this behavior.


  7. John Burgess says:

    You correctly identify at least one of the reasons why it makes sense for the US to support Saudi (actually, GCC) aspirations toward nuclear energy.
    A more mundane reason would include the sale of nuclear tech and equipment, over the heads of the French, Chinese, and Russians, or perhaps Pakistan or N. Korea.
    Even more cynically, every barrel of oil or cubic foot of gas that the Saudis don’t burn to produce electricity–and they are among the highest per capita consumers of electricity–is available for export.
    Finally, there is that matter of pollution and whatever effect it has on global warming. Right now, given the high prices on oil and gas, the GCC is looking to import coal to produce electricity. Nuclear energy is far less polluting than oil, gas, or coal.


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