A Nuclear Deal? Can Pakistan support Saudi Arabia against Iran?

A Nuclear Deal? Can Pakistan support Saudi Arabia against Iran?

Noor-ul-Ain Khawaja, University of Karachi                          


Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been arch rivals, especially since the Iranian revolution occurred in 1979 that brought the clergy into power.  But this division has been sharpened over the years by a raft of geo-political issues – from Bahrain to the Yemen and most recently Syria, where Iran has backed the Syrian government while Saudi Arabia supported the rebels – that enveloped the whole Middle East region.

Emerging Western policies, contrary to Saudi interests, have compelled it to change its course of action to deal with these regional issues. In the Syrian crisis, Iran has emerged as an influential regional player, supported by Russia, and Hizbullah in Lebanon and Iraq. The West and the Gulf states have not been able to turn the game in their favour by toppling the Syrian president’s government and, after two years of international efforts, the West has been left with no alternative but to form an agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme.

The Geneva nuclear deal between Iran and the West has given a new dimension to world politics. Saudi Arabia, along with other Arab states, has reacted with suspicion and sees the accord as a potential threat to its security and a move that may damage its dominant position in the region. The accord made Saudi Arabia annoyed with the West, particularly with the softened attitude of the US, at a time when it was already disappointed with the West’s inability to resolve the Syrian crisis on its terms. Even its rejection of a long-sought UN Security Council non-permanent seat could not change the West’s support for the nuclear deal with Iran.

Before the nuclear talks concluded, the Saudi ambassador to UK said, “We are not going to sit idly by and receive a threat there and not think seriously how we can best defend our country and our region.”  But neither could this threatening tone stop the deal from being signed, notwithstanding that President Obama, on his visit to Riyadh, assured Saudi King that the US would not accept ‘a bad deal’ with Iran.

This great and unexpected change in the international arena has left two options for Saudi Arabia, either move to settle issues with Iran, or wait and see and focus on improving its own military-economic strength.

Exercising the first option, Saudi Arabia invited Iran to attend a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), but Iran declined due to a prior engagement on the date. However, Iran has not shown any interest in meeting at a future date. Saudi Arabia may go for the second option, i.e., to go nuclear itself, because it considers nuclear Iran as an existential threat. In this scenario, many analysts are examining Pakistan-Saudi Arabia ties with suspicion. For them Pakistan is the only Muslim state that possesses nuclear power and it may, therefore, provide nuclear arms to Saudi Arabia in its time of need.

It is being suggested that Saudi Arabia might approach Pakistan for nuclear help and Pakistan may do this in return for economic support. I suggest that this is highly unlikely for reasons given below and that diplomatic efforts should be re-directed at the first option.

Providing nuclear arms to Saudi Arabia is not an easy exercise, because it  is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.[1] Although providing a nuclear bomb could be as easy as shipping it across the Arabian Sea, if Pakistan does so, then it will probably have to face sanctions. It could lead to an arms race in the region. More importantly, it would be almost impossible for Pakistan to support Saudi Arabia by supplying nuclear arms, as it would be detrimental to its own existence. However, Pakistan heavily depends on Saudi Arabia, as 60 per cent of its remittances come from Pakistanis living there.

Pakistan would never think of attacking its immediate neighbour, Iran, for fear of multi-dimensional repercussions. But Iran is situated to the west of Pakistan, sharing a border with the latter’s most troubled province – Balochistan. Iran has a Balochistan of its own and this figures in international conspiracies to carve out an independent Balochistan comprising Pakistani and Iranian Balochistan. Jundullah, an anti-Iran terrorist group is believed to be launching operations from Pakistan and to be sponsored by the CIA.

Iran is a vital player in the region and holds the key to regional peace. It has stakes in Afghanistan and used to support non-Pashtun ethnic groups there. When the Taliban seized Afghanistan in 1996, Pakistan recognized the Taliban government, while Iran supported anti-Taliban groups, such as the Northern Alliance. It remains a strong supporter of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government, which has anti-Pakistani sentiments and has accused Pakistan many times of supporting militant insurgency against its territory. Moreover, Iran is among the top five exporters and importers of goods to and from Afghanistan.

The national interests of Iran and Pakistan are in sharp conflict vis-a-vis Afghanistan. More importantly, Iran has military ties with Pakistan’s other archrival, India and its Chabahar port, is very close to Gwadar. If Pakistan antagonizes Iran, it risks increased Indian influence on its West and Southwest, especially after the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. From the Indian side, New Delhi uses Iran as its main access point to Afghanistan. Any initiatives to support Saudi Arabia in military terms may allow India and Iran to aid Baloch separatist movements.

China is another factor after Iran, India and Afghanistan, that stays Pakistan’s hand in relation to supporting Saudi Arabia in nuclear terms. China is heavily dependent on Persian Gulf oil to run its huge, and growing, industrial economy. By opening Saudi Arabia up to a conventional or nuclear attack, China’s oil supplies could come under threat that would be of even more concern to China than the US because the Kingdom supplies about 20 per cent of China’s oil imports.

The nuclear deal between Iran and the West seems to melt the ice between other Gulf States and Iran. When the emir of Kuwait met with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei both leaders focused on enhancing ties between their states. Saudi Arabia’s aborted invitation seems to be another step forward. But, the emergence of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) led by an  al-Qaeda inspired group is a further major threat to the stability of the region.

There is a dire need for the Arab states and Iran and other Shia-dominated states to build a consensus to deal with the new phenomenon before it envelops the whole region. If it happens, then no one will be able to save the world from a great catastrophe.

[1] Article amended on 11/08/14 to correct error introduced at copy-editing which suggested that Pakistan, not Saudia Arabia, was a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.


Noor-ul-Ain Khawaja is currently pursuing an MS degree in the Department of International Relations, University of Karachi, Pakistan. She was previously Senior Research Officer and in charge of the Research Department, at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs.