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Is Saudi Arabia the latest country
to benefit from Washington's
blind eye on nuclear weapons?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

August 9, 2004

LONDON - In his forthcoming memoir on his involvement in the Indian/Pakistani nuclear relationship Strobe Talbott, the former U.S. deputy Secretary of State, recounts the surprise and alarm that swept through the eighth floor of the State Department when, on May 11th 1998, the first reports came in over CNN that India had tested a nuclear weapon. Yet one presumes his diplomats were reading the Indian press carefully. For example, I have in front of me two articles dated April 8th and 15th, 1998, in the influential Indian daily, The Statesman, that argued that now the Indian nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata party had come to power India going nuclear was going to happen very quickly. The information was around for those who had eyes and ears. It was as if Washington didn't want to know until it had to.

Rather similarly the reports emerging today suggesting that Saudi Arabia may be the latest Middle Eastern country to engage in a planning program on nuclear weapons recall a report of the International Institute for Strategic Studies published as long ago as 1989. This well-informed, London-based body remarked on the then recent Saudi purchase of Chinese CSS-2 rockets: "Missiles of such range are difficult to justify unless they carry nuclear weapons." "They are too elaborate and expensive to make sense for anything else", I was told at the time. "Controllable thrust engines, inertial guidance systems and heat shielding put up the cost to astronomical levels."

But Washington didn't want to know and still doesn't want to know. Not one senior Administration figure is talking about Saudi Arabian nuclear weapons' plans despite the new worrying intelligence reports.  It is the same with U.S. policy towards Israel's large stock of nuclear weapons. The U.S. will not confirm on the record what everybody knows- that Israel has around 200 nuclear weapons.

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Washington prefers when that is its immediate strategic interest (albeit not its long term one) to put its telescope to its blind eye. It couldn't allow itself to be too agitated about India's nuclear research because it had kept quiet for so long about Pakistan's, its close ally. When the Soviet army poured into Afghanistan during the Carter Administration the U.S. suspended its nuclear non-proliferation policy so that Pakistan was sanctions-free and could receive the military and economic aid which the U.S. wanted it to have. Yet everyone knew that Pakistan was developing its nuclear weapons' capability at a fast rate. And today we know that Pakistan's chief nuclear weapons' scientist was running a side-show, selling nuclear technology and equipment far and wide- to North Korea, Libya, Iran and, now the spooks say, a "fourth customer", which can only be Saudi Arabia.

How can Washington be a credible force for anti-proliferation when this is the recent historical record, doing little or nothing until too late? Strobe Talbott gives a hair rising ringside view of the Indian-Pakistani nuclear crisis of 1999. He reports that President Bill Clinton thought that it brought the antagonists closer to nuclear war than the U.S. and the Soviet Union were at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

We know too that when Saudi Arabia bought these Chinese missiles in 1988 Israel was nervous enough to warn Saudi Arabia that it would engage in a preemptive nuclear strike if it ever had cause for suspicion they would be used against it. Some close observers are still convinced that only U.S. pressure stayed the Israeli hand in the very nervous March and April of 1988. (Saudi Arabia, for its part, attempted to reassure Israel by saying it acquired the rockets for defense against Iran, not Israel.)

Diplomatically it is very difficult for Washington to rally international opinion behind a hard line on nuclear non-proliferation in North Korea and Iran when its recent past performance is so ambiguous and inconsistent.

The credibility of the Bush Administration is further undermined by its actions in securing "loose nukes" and near-nukes, in Russia. Harvard professor, Graham Allison, has described the attitude of the G8 nations towards this issue as "lackadaisical and unfocused". Despite agreement in principal with Russia to work together on the issue, less plutonium and highly enriched uranium have been secured in the two years since September 11th 2001 than the two years before. President George Bush does not give the issue his direct personal involvement.

Meanwhile at home, rather than setting a good example by freezing weapons development, the Administration has been seeking an increase in research funding for two new kinds of nuclear weapons.

Is hypocrisy the tribute that vice pays to virtue? But if so where do we go from here? Is the sauce that is good for the goose not good for the gander?


Note for editor: 1) Copyright Jonathan Power 2) dateline London 3) I can be reached by e-mail: or by phone: +44 7785 351172.



Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:




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