Iran and the Saudi Nuclear and Missile Programs

Iran views Saudi Arabia’s budding nuclear and missile programs as an emerging strategic threat to be faced by constructing corresponding capabilities of its own—once they reach a critical stage of development.
Iran and the Saudi Nuclear and Missile Programs
Photo credit: Markaz

In an abrupt announcement on April 21, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed General Hossein Salami, the former deputy commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as the elite force’s new head.

Khamenei had extended the tenure of the former IRGC top commander, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, by another three years—after he had customarily served in the post for a decade—in July 2017, so replacing him was officially premature.

Given Salami is more hardline in approach and belligerent in rhetoric than his predecessor, the IRGC change of command seems to be Iran’s latest measure to adapt to the emerging external threat environment. In fact, it came two weeks after the U.S.’ designation of the Revolutionary Guards as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and shortly before the Trump administration decided to halt sanctions waivers and exemptions for buyers of Iranian oil.

An underreported yet perhaps more strategic component of the new environment that Tehran perceives as a long-term source of threat, and considers in its national security decision making, is Saudi Arabia’s budding nuclear and missile programs.

Rapid Saudi population growth—from 20 million in 2000 to 34 million in 2019—and consequent increase in demand for energy consumption understandably make civilian nuclear power an attractive option to meet domestic needs. Energy demand in the kingdom is growing by eight to ten percent per year which, it is estimated, requires a boost of 80 gigawatts in energy generation by 2040.

With that in mind, the Saudis established King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) in April 2010 to reduce the reliance on fossil energy and produce desalinated water in the long haul.

With that in mind, the Saudis established King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) in April 2010 to reduce the reliance on fossil energy and produce desalinated water in the long haul. Almost five years later, in January 2015, the Saudis announced an updated target of 17 gigawatts of nuclear power that would account for 15 percent of the demand.

What raises concerns about Saudi nuclear plans, however, is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s confrontational regional strategy and lack of adequate safeguards and surveillance by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure the program would remain solely civilian and not turn towards military weaponization.

Google Earth satellite images in early April confirmed that Saudi Arabia was nearing completion of its first nuclear reactor in the Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh.

More significantly for Tehran, the United States is engaged in surreptitious nuclear technology transfers to the kingdom, apparently with an Israeli green light, while pursuing a policy of “maximum pressure” against the Islamic Republic at the same time, a course of action that was adopted after President Trump pulled Washington out of the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018 and reimposed comprehensive sanctions on the country shortly afterwards. In late March, Reuters revealed the Trump administration’s secret approval of licenses for six American firms to sell atomic power technology to Riyadh.

Simultaneously, the Saudis are seeking to develop a ballistic missile program of their own, apparently with Chinese assistance. In November 2018, satellite imagery taken by the U.S. company Planet Labs Inc showed what appeared to be rocket engine tests for ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons at a military base near the town of al-Dawadmi, around 230 kilometers west of Riyadh.

Combined with bin Salman’s warnings that Saudi Arabia would pursue atomic weapons if its chief nemesis Iran did, these concurrent and mostly clandestine missile and nuclear activities are sounding alarm bells in Tehran.

The first major reaction came from Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei in his Persian New Year Speech on March 21.

In an almost unprecedented diatribe against Riyadh, he described Saudi Arabia as the “worst state in the region and perhaps in the world,” vowing that if they build a nuclear capability with American assistance, “it will fall into the hands of Islamic combatants in the not-so-distant era.”

The prediction seems to indicate that Tehran might bolster support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels if tensions and hostilities escalate or Riyadh adopts a game-changing policy to tilt the regional balance of power in its favor.   

Less than a week later, Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), warned that the Islamic Republic might be forced to modify its defense posture and national security strategy in response.

Some countries in the region are spending their petrodollars on suspicious nuclear projects that can endanger the security of the region and the world,” he said. “New threats like this will force us to revise our strategy based on the nature and geography of new threats, and predict the requirements of our country and armed forces.”

While the acquisition of a weaponized atomic capability by the Saudis would arguably challenge Israel’s “nuclear monopoly” in the Middle East, quite counterintuitively, Iranian leadership seems to see Saudi weaponization as an extension of Israeli nuclear defenses by proxy.

“Given the emerging alliance between Riyadh and Tel Aviv against us, Saudi nuclear capability is meant to serve as a proxy shield for Israel, which is basically why they are letting it pass,” Sajad Abedi, a senior analyst at Iran’s National Defense and Security Think Tank, told Inside Arabia. The institute is closely affiliated with the Iranian Supreme Leader’s office.

“That’s how it is viewed in influential strategic circles in Tehran,” he added.

It is not entirely clear how the Islamic Republic might “revise” its security strategy to counter a Saudi nuclear threat.

It is not entirely clear how the Islamic Republic might “revise” its security strategy to counter a Saudi nuclear threat. Despite growing economic and political pressure on Iran over its “destabilizing” regional behavior, Tehran has so far refrained from abandoning the July 2015 nuclear accordofficially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)even though calls among Iranian hardliners and reformists alike for scrapping it and resuming nuclear work at an advanced level are gaining momentum.

Fears about the possible formation of a U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic Republicwhich would feature China and Russia as in the pre-JCPOA eraand the ensuing likelihood of military conflict have so far deterred the Islamic Republic from pulling out of the agreement.

Yet, if Saudi atomic activities reach a “threshold” stage, that is, short of a political decision to acquire weaponized capacity, Iran’s response will likely involve military-grade nuclear initiatives as well. This and other potential security threats seem to be part of the rationale behind the appointment of a more hardline strategist at the helm of the Revolutionary Guards.