What is Washington going to do about that?


In any body politic there will be a group of powerful people who, if not in the inner circle of the president or prime minister, can win access to it at regular intervals. Security is their profession and they can be met at discrete academic conferences where they tend to stand out as rather earnest, if somber, figures. It is they who bend the ear of those in authority, consistent in their solicitations, even as governments change, arguing that their country will only have true security if they possess a nuclear deterrent and that if their advice is not heeded, one day there will be an enemy who will take advantage of their country’s naiveté.

One of these I knew reasonably well, the erudite and charming nuclear physicist, the late Dr Munir Khan, one of the fathers of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, who, it was said – although no proof was ever forthcoming – had used his previous position as a high official in the International Atomic Energy Agency to build clandestine contacts for Pakistan’s bomb makers. The late Olof Palme, prime minister of Sweden for many years, told me how he had to “defang” the nuclear bomb establishment that was well under way with its plans when he came to power. It is not easy to roll back the nuclear lobby even when one is prime minister – there is always the danger, if you don’t take the scientists along with you, that they, believing they love the country more than the prime minister does, will conduct their future researches clandestinely or, if not in secret, under the guise of using it for “peaceful purposes”, and await for the political currents to turn in their favour.

This is in essence what happened in India. A new authoritative study, `The Politics of Nuclear Weapons in India and Pakistan’ (Praeger), written by Haider Nizamani, makes clear that their nuclear programmes did not originate in response to specific security problems. They were born in visions of national identity. Adversaries were not the cause. Rather, they had to be found. This explains India’s remarkable decision to put its bomb development on ice after its successful “peaceful” nuclear test in 1974. The “threat” from China had gone quiet and Pakistan, for all the acrimony, did not seem a real threat. Only in the 1990s, by arguing that China with its nuclear weapons was becoming an enemy, were the bomb advocates able to win the ear of the politicians and alternative voices were gradually marginalised as “unpatriotic”.

One of the pivotal figures was the strategic thinker K. Subrahmanyam who, by sheer doggedness, transformed a minority opinion into a mainstream assumption. His calculation, correct as it turned out, is once a certain threshold has been crossed, popular opinion, invariably nationalistic, will succumb to the call of patriotism. With the rise of the Hindu-nationalist party, the BJP, the bomb became inevitable. The move by America, Russia, Britain and France to win support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty probably backfired because it compelled India to choose between its old rhetoric of worldwide nuclear disarmament and its growing taste for nationalistic bravado.

We now see the same process afoot in Saudi Arabia. A dozen years ago, in this column, I tried to draw attention to Saudi Arabia’s purchase of Chinese CSS-2 rockets. I wrote then that there could be no question that these had not been purchased for conventional military activity, as they were unnecessarily powerful and, moreover, inaccurate with a normal explosive warhead. Their sole purpose was to carry a nuclear weapon. For years, Western nuclear powers have connived to keep this, if not secret, quiet. Saudi Arabia has been a strategic ally, most important and long standing, in the oil business but relatively recently in the containment of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. As successive administrations in Washington have viewed it, discretion has been the better part of valour, even though one of the targets would be the Middle East’s other nuclear power, Israel.

An article by Richard Russell in the current issue of Survival, the quarterly of the influential International Institute for Strategic Studies, argues that whilst Saudi Arabia has not yet put nuclear warheads on these rockets, it is probably only a matter of time before it does. Self-serving security issues are far more important in such decision making than “an innate friendship” with the US. Although the US more than responded to Iraq’s invasion of neighbouring Kuwait, would they do so a second or third time? For the desert kingdom with its small population and army but huge territory, nuclear weapons appear a sensible option. At the same time, they would make the country less dependent on the stationing of US forces on its soil, which enrages the powerful fundamentalist lobby.

After Washington belatedly discovered the purchase of the CSS-2 from China, 31 senators called on the Reagan administration to suspend American arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis were not intimidated. Requests by Washington to inspect the missiles have been refused.

As Israel long has, Saudi Arabia will always deny the intention to build a nuclear armoury, not least so as not to publicly embarrass Washington. But common sense and much circumstantial evidence suggest that this is the way it will go. It is not the so-called “rogues” who pose the threat of uncontrolled nuclear proliferation; it is some of the Western powers’ “nearest and dearest”. What is Washington going to do about that?

Mr. Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and author. He contributed this article to the Jordan Times.