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MEI: Nuclear Weapons and Saudi Strategy

Author: Thomas W. Lippman, Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute
January 2008

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This Middle East Institute Policy Brief examines Saudi strategy and response if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, concluding that the Saudis would much prefer an accommodation with Iran and progress toward its long-stated goal of making the entire region a zone free of nuclear weapons.

It is widely believed among policymakers and strategic analysts in Washington and in many Middle Eastern capitals that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will feel compelled to do the same. In some ways this belief makes sense because Saudi Arabia is as vulnerable as it is rich, and it has long felt threatened by the revolutionary ascendancy of its Shi‘ite rival across the Gulf. Moreover, some senior Saudi officials have said privately that their country's hand would be forced if it became known beyond doubt that Iran had become nuclear weapons capable.

The publication in late 2007 of portions of a US National Intelligence Estimate reporting that Iran had abandoned a program to weaponize nuclear devices in 2003 did not put an end to the speculation about a Saudi Arabian response; the NIE made clear that Iran was continuing its effort to master the uranium enrichment process, and could resume a weapons program on short notice.

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