“If Iran went nuclear tomorrow, the next day the Saudis would probably buy a nuclear weapon from Pakistan or ratchet up their own nuclear program,” said Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation. “They have a long way to go, but they reportedly financed the Pakistani program, and there might be some quid pro quo involved in that.”
Iran and the U.S. agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015 during President Obama’s administration. President Trump withdrew from the plan in 2018 and promised to negotiate a better deal, but President Biden had to take the lead on any such new deal.
Saudi Arabia strongly opposed the original nuclear deal but recently has shown more willingness to engage Tehran on an agreement. Experts point to a number of factors that have drawn Riyadh to the negotiating table – chiefly economic and security concerns for the region.
“I think Saudi Arabia is being more diplomatic, but not really positive because it saw the deal went through in 2015 despite its objection and the objections of Israel,” Phillips argued. “So, I think it’s minimizing its negative reception.”
“It’s publicizing its negative views of a possible deal, but I believe it remains strongly opposed because of the impact of a possible deal on its national interests.”
A nuclear deal would likely see Iran resume its previous level of trade, which would provide a significant impact on the economic balance of the region. Todd Young recently wrote in a Fox News opinion piece that the windfall could total as much as $130.5 billion.
“Saudis and others would be worried about reductions in oil prices – that’s the first concern – and overall, more the worry is whether Iran will be able to use the income from a new nuclear deal to help further fuel the expansion of its missile and proxy terrorist activities,” Matthew McInnis from the Institute for the Study of War explained.
“The Houthis are certainly the number one concern for the Saudis right now,” McInnis said. “That’s the number one thing on the Saudi agenda: how to deal with the Houthis. They want resolution of the conflict.”
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman refused a call from President Biden – which the White House denies – and Phillips argued this was likely in reaction to how Biden has handled the Houthis security concern. Biden removed the Houthis from a list of designated terrorist groups shortly after taking office but has considered adding them back to the list as a means of easing tensions with Riyadh.
But the greatest concern remains Iran’s ability to obtain nuclear weapons should it start to develop its capabilities. The JCPOA limited Iran’s nuclear capabilities for a period of 10 years on centrifuges and 15 years on the amount of enriched uranium it can possess.
Critics argue the 15-year window only delays Iran’s nuclear pathway rather than stops it, and it provides Iran with upfront, permanent benefits of cash that cause immediate concerns for the region. Supporters believe that gap will allow a new generation to take power and make new agreements, but it’s a gamble that some other countries – such as Israel and, until more recently, Saudi Arabia – do not support.
Saudi Arabia’s program remains far less developed compared to Iran’s, but it has some potential shortcuts: A “variety of sources” told BBC Newsnight in 2013 that Saudi Arabia had invested in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons project, largely to prepare for the possibility of Iran obtaining a bomb.
Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, told a conference in Sweden at the time that if Iran got the bomb, “the Saudis will not wait one month. They already paid for the bomb, they will go to Pakistan and bring what they need to bring.”
McInnis argues that is may still be the case: Pakistan would likely provide the “easiest” option for Saudi Arabia to arm itself, but he questions how effectively that method would work.
“I think the Iranians probably underestimate the risk of other regional states pursuing nuclear weapons if they do decide to go for a bomb,” McInnis said. “This is one of the reasons why we have to be extremely concerned about the Iranians pursuing a nuclear weapon, considering the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the region.”
“Obviously, with the long-standing connections with Pakistan on a variety of fronts, there is the concern that that would be the avenue by which Saudi Arabia could achieve a nuclear weapon quickly,” he added. “I think the Pakistan pathway is probably the easiest, but I think there are still a number of questions as to whether that would work.”