Iran’s Nuclear Diplomacy: A Response from Saudi Arabia

By Saud Mousaed Al Tamamy

This response first appeared in the RUSI Whitehall Paper An Uncertain Future: Regional Responses to Iran’s Nuclear Programme

There is a widespread idea due to Iran’s lack of transparency. The second option is for Saudi Arabia to support US-led, surgical military strikes targeting Iranian nuclear sites. However, this would have only limited effect as Iranian facilities are scattered and well hidden. Furthermore, Iran could rebuild its nuclear programme relatively quickly, and probably with greater determination. The third option is containment; however, this would require a far more willing international community, and it is highly doubtful whether countries such as Russia, China and India would participate. Containment is thus likely to fail. The fourth option is to rely on a US security umbrella comprised of conventional forces. However, the American failure to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability would markedly reduce Saudi confidence in Washington. Furthermore, the stationing of foreign troops on Saudi soil as a means to protect the country vis-à-vis another regional power would erode the country’s self-perception as the cradle of Arabism and Islam, and as a regional superpower.

Possible Options for Saudi Arabia


Saudi Arabia accepts a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear programme in principle. The November 2013 Geneva agreement between Iran and the EU/E3+3 is an elementary first step in preventing Tehran from producing a nuclear weapon. US officials have said that the deal prohibits Iranian enrichment of uranium beyond the level of 5 per cent, and stops Iran from continuing work on its heavy-water reactor at Arak. Granting Iran the right to enrich uranium within its borders does not create an ideal situation for the Kingdom, but it is  not  also  necessarily  against  Saudi  Arabia’s  interests,  so  long  as two conditions are maintained. The first is putting in place tight and effective inspection measures to ensure that Iran does not exceed the agreed level of enrichment (5 per cent); the second is granting Saudi Arabia the same right for its emerging nuclear programme. 

The deal, however, does not eliminate Saudi concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions for four reasons. First, it is not yet permanent and there is no guarantee that it will be. Second, it is very obvious that there is more than one interpretation of the deal. Whether Iran is allowed, in reality, to continue constructing its plutonium-producing reactor at Arak, and whether Tehran will be forced to comply with the agreement concerning uranium-enrichment levels are still contested issues. The deal struck between Iran and the EU/E3+3 might yet turn into another version of the Syrian ‘Geneva I’ agreements: a highly contested agreement that leads to a situation of political stagnation rather than to a diplomatic solution.

Third, although the deal is intended as a step towards preventing Tehran from producing a nuclear weapon, it does not completely exclude this option so long as Iran has the right to continue its nuclear programme, including  the  right  to  enrich  uranium.  Fourth,  the  deal  addresses only one element of Saudi–Iranian rivalry. It does not address the other aspects, including, crucially, Iran’s hegemonic agenda. There is a widespread belief amongst Saudi academics and experts that Iran made significant concessions on the nuclear fronts in return for a legitimation of its role in the whole region. Furthermore, the deal is likely to lead to a normalisation of Iranian–Western (including Iranian– US) relations. Drawing the whole picture together, the deal is unlikely, in its current form, to make the Kingdom feel more secure.


The Geneva agreement envisions allowing Iran to possess a ‘mutually defined enrichment programme’, wording that represents a conditional recognition of Iran’s claimed right to enrich. If a comprehensive agreement includes Iranian enrichment to lower levels, Saudi Arabia would most likely demand exactly the same scope for its own emerging nuclear programme. Also, if the interim or a future deal confers upon Tehran a special status in the Gulf and in the wider Fertile Crescent, then it is most likely that the Kingdom would not accept it, and may pursue a regional revisionist policy to assuage its own security fears.

If the EU/E3+3 fails to prevent Iran either from producing a nuclear weapon or from enriching uranium beyond the level of 5 per cent, Saudi Arabia would be compelled to acquire, independently of the US, a reliable system of deterrence to counterbalance the threat this would pose. The dramatic shift of balance of power towards Iran and the uncertain global environment that would follow the country’s acquisition of such a capability would provide the Kingdom with the ‘political will’ to go ahead with such a decision. For Saudi Arabia, ‘going nuclear’ would require building nuclear reactors, acquiring nuclear fuel, mastering enrichment technologies and designing delivery systems. Furthermore, it would also require it to confront regional and international pressures against doing so. It would be a long and painful journey, but it should be remembered that countries such as China, India and Pakistan did not become nuclear powers simply because they obtained the means, knowledge and infrastructure to be so, but because they also had the political will – a decisive factor that would be available to Saudi Arabia should the international community accept Iran as a nuclear power with nuclear military capability.

Coexisting with a Nuclear Iran

Saudi Arabia, realising the diplomatic and economic risks of acquiring its own nuclear capabilities, could choose not to match nuclear Iran and to follow what might be called the ‘Korean model’. While still seeking to contain nuclear North Korea, South Korea has not chosen to acquire military nuclear capabilities. Instead, Seoul undertakes a mixture of economic, diplomatic and military activities to contain its northern rival and to minimise the threat posed by its nuclear and non-nuclear military capabilities. This includes its development of a superior conventional military capability and an advanced, peaceful nuclear programme, as well as its pursuit of a modern political and economic system. The Korean model also entails maintaining extensive defence ties with the US and preserving relatively strong military ties with Japan, even if bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo are sometimes difficult, at the same time as reaching out to North Korea’s main diplomatic supporter, China.

If Saudi Arabia were to adopt a version of the so-called Korean model, Riyadh would then need to establish a new military doctrine that incorporates working closely with other GCC members and Pakistan, co-operating closely with Turkey and Egypt, and supporting the militaries of Afghanistan, Yemen and possibly Iraq. An effective and widespread domestic conscription system might also be required. Improving defence ties with traditional Western allies (the US and European powers) as well as with reaching out to Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi and Baghdad would also be necessary. An advanced, peaceful nuclear programme built on the right to enrich uranium for civil purposes would also be initiated.

The Kingdom’s adoption of the Korean model in the Middle East would require more than this, however. For such a model to be effective a  fruitful, a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue must be achieved in order to deny Iran any possibility of using its new source of influence, and to quell extremism in the region. Furthermore, Western powers should provide maximum economic, technological and diplomatic support to the Kingdom, as they did in supporting the  front-line  states  during  the  Cold  War  era.  At  the  same  time, Iran’s economic and diplomatic reach should be restricted. This dual diplomatic strategy, if undertaken by the West, would help to boost Riyadh’s influence to its maximum, and prevent Iran from projecting itself as a role model for the region and beyond.

Dr Saud Mousaed Al Tamamy is an assistant professor of political theory at King Saud University (KSU), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with research interests in political theory and international and strategic issues. He was awarded his PhD from the University of Exeter in 2009, and his PhD thesis will shortly be published under the title Averroes, Kant and the Origins of the Enlightenment: Reason and Revelation in Arab Thought (I.B.Tauris). He has also contributed a chapter to the book Saudi Foreign Policy 1960–2010 with a chapter entitled ‘Saudi Foreign Policy towards the Arab-Israeli Conflict.’

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