THE NUCLEAR STANDOFF

by Gunnar Eigener

Amid simmering tensions between India and Pakistan, in parallel with the Trump White House determined to sell nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia and Russia’s illegal missile, which effectively ended the INF Treaty, climate change might not be the nail in the coffin; human society might just jump straight into the furnace.

The recent revelations that the White House was considering selling nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia show just how much greed prevails even over the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse. Although Saudi Arabia claims to want to use the technology to build nuclear power plants in a bid to reduce its dependency on oil, previous discussions have indicated that the Middle East kingdom had refused to rule out using it to develop weapons. The Democrat-led House of Representatives Oversight Committee plan to launch an enquiry into whether it is lawful to sell this technology.

The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed by the US and Russia, eliminated land-based missiles with ranges from 500 km to 5500 km. While the withdrawal from the treaty by the US has drawn condemnation from different quarters, the blame is evenly distributed. Both countries have tested weapons they should not have done; the US launched the AGM-158B aviation missile, and Russia tested their SSC-8 cruise missile. Other disputes and alleged violations have included missile defence systems and development costs.

The current military spat between India and Pakistan comes after a bomb in February killed over 40 Indian soldiers in Pulwama, in Indian-administered Kashmir. India retaliated with airstrikes against what it claims are militant bases in Pakistan. India accuses Pakistani security agencies of being involved in the February attack. Pakistan condemned the attack while one of its closest allies, China, has urged restraint on both sides.

 

this technology is a political hot potato.

 

Nuclear technology is a double-edged blade. On the one side, it can offer a clean way to produce power, an alternative to oil that creates less waste and does substantially less damage to the environment. Geopolitically, it enables countries to reduce their reliance on other countries and leaves them less susceptible to political blackmail and suppression.

However, this technology is a political hot potato. The US made a big fanfare of leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran deal. Iran has long claimed to be seeking to utilise nuclear technology in order to reduce its dependency on oil and to generate more power for its people. Donald Trump denounced this as the “worst deal ever”, instead opting for harsher sanctions against the country, which is already struggling with deep economic woes. The reasoning behind this is that Iran would likely use the technology to devise a dirty bomb, not a possibility to ignored, instead of using it for power generation.

So what makes Saudi Arabia more reliable? In truth, not a lot. American and other Western intelligence agencies believe that the House of Saud paid for a considerable percentage of Pakistan’s nuclear programme in order to have access to nuclear warheads at short notice. The idea of Iran having nuclear weapons but not Saudi Arabia has left the Saudis keen to acquire the technology in order to maintain some sort of balance and nuclear deterrent.

However, what if Saudi Arabia did acquire nuclear technology and developed weapons, something it has not ruled out it would so? The use of such weapons against Iran would be condemned internationally but the current White House would likely come out in support of its Middle Eastern ally. Pro-war hawks, such as John Bolton, the US National Security Advisor, would probably see this as an inevitable outcome and might even welcome such actions, having long advocated the bombing of Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

Moreover, what of North Korea? The US is still technically seeking to encourage North Korea to ditch its nuclear weapons and technology, but watching Saudi Arabia gain access to nuclear technology so readily would surely make them nervous and less likely to give up their nuclear ability. China, a strong ally of both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, might also be a bit jittery about such power almost on its doorstep.

Political ties and signed deals will keep this group closely tied to one another; external factors may do the most damage. Pakistan might look to China for military support and, given American ire for Pakistan’s handling of terrorist groups within its borders, the US might provide backup to India. With the US and China currently engaged in trade talks, China might have second thoughts about sticking its neck out and be reluctant to scupper nuclear negotiations between the US and Saudi Arabia.

 

building nuclear power plants in order to reduce the production of oil might encourage an overall decrease in oil dependency…

 

Yet there could be an unseen benefit. If Saudi Arabia can guarantee it will not use the technology for developing weapons, then building nuclear power plants in order to reduce the production of oil might encourage an overall decrease in oil dependency and encourage other countries to develop alternative means of generating power. The hold of oil producing countries may gradually wane, leaving those countries who needed their oil no longer inclined to agree to their demands. Oil demand will continue to rise for the next 20 years but if there already exists the underlying determination to switch energy production needs then thoughts may turn to preparing for that now instead of further down the line.  

Featured image credit: The U.S. National Archives


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