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What Saudi Arabia Has At Stake In The Iran Nuclear Deal


How is Iran's regional rival, Saudi Arabia, responding to the nuclear deal? Officially, they say they're studying it. Riyadh is commonly described as skeptical of a diplomatic agreement with Tehran. The two powers are locked in a sectarian Cold War within Islam, Sunni Saudi Arabia versus Shiite Iran. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, the Saudis have said they'll get one too. Well, Nawaf Obaid is a Saudi political analyst who has worked in the past with the Saudi government. Today he's in London.

Welcome to the program once again.

NAWAF OBAID: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: The other day, Senator Lindsey Graham said here that has no doubt that this agreement will lead to Saudi Arabia getting a bomb, deciding to make one. Do you think that's how the Saudis will react to this nuclear deal?

OBAID: It all really depends on the next several months and how things proceed. If the Iranians are allowed to become a threshold state, then Saudi Arabia will have no choice but to pursue a militarized nuclear program.

SIEGEL: How do you define threshold state?

OBAID: So this is what I really define by threshold, is, you don't actually have to have a weapon in store to be considered a nuclear power today. You can have all the mechanisms and all the infrastructure in place, and just in a very short time be able to arm a warhead and make it nuclear. What happens after 10 years? What happens after 15 years? Will the Iranians still be obliged to follow the rules, or will they be able to start enriching as much as they want and start developing as much uranium as possible in order to start putting them on their warheads or delivery systems?

SIEGEL: So do you think that in the Saudi view that if several years out, Iran could legally do that - although it has declared that it will not - that just the ability to do so would be enough for the Saudis to proceed and develop a weapon, or would they have to actually indicate that they are in fact enriching toward weapons-grade uranium to get the Saudis to move in that direction?

OBAID: No, they don't even have to because if the Iranians are perceived to be a threshold nuclear state, this comes with a lot of power. And so if we're going this towards this deadline, let's say in 10 years from now, where no one really knows the intents of the Iranians - which I'm sure that will be the case - then a country like Saudi Arabia, it cannot find itself in a position where it does not have this very legitimizing, forceful option, where the Iranians would have by then.

SIEGEL: How far along is Saudi Arabia today in the way of preparations for becoming, itself, a threshold nuclear power?

OBAID: We haven't really - I mean, we don't really have a program on that. What we do is that we have all the blueprints and we have the white paper, which you can find on the website of the civil nuclear agency, that will be regulating and overseeing the massive investments into the Saudi nuclear civil reactors. Now, between the civil reactor program and a military program, there are very small differences. And hence, if you go down that road, it will be very easy to be able to develop a technology that we could use indigenously in order to start going down a military nuclear program.

SIEGEL: Apart from relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are pretty bad, does this agreement fundamentally change Saudi relations with the United States?

OBAID: Well, it fundamentally changes it - and it was changing, to be fair, it wasn't just this agreement about the whole security guarantee issue. And this is where I think it's still not understood within the current administration when they say that they'll give a nuclear umbrella to Saudi Arabia - which is fine, which is great, but ultimately, it's a domestic issue in Saudi Arabia. One of the major pillars of the legitimacy of the current monarch in Saudi Arabia is the fact to be seen as being able not only to defend the realm but as well to defend his allies in the region, such as what he did in Bahrain, what he's doing today in Yemen - which we didn't talk about - and what, you know, will happen in the future with Syria and so forth. So this is where the fundamental change is happening, and this agreement has only accentuated that change.


Nawaf Obaid, thank you very much for talking with us today.

OBAID: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Nawaf Obaid, who's a Saudi Arabian political analyst, also a visiting fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center. He spoke to us from London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.