Commentary Magazine


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Who Is Afraid of Iran’s Nukes?

Norman Podhoretz has been courageously making the case for a U.S. strike on Iran’s nuclear-weapon’s program for some time now. He also has — or had — been predicting that President Bush would carry out such a strike before the end of his presidency. As time grows short, that seems increasingly unlikely.

But let’s not rule it out entirely.We have already pointed to the fact that as Iran acquires sophisticated Russian air-defenses, which it may deploy as early as this fall, the execution of a U.S. strike will be greatly complicated and the risks associated with it will rise. It would be easier for the U.S. to the job before the SA-20s are pointing toward the skies.

There is another factor as well that pushes in the same direction: growing pressure from an insecure but highly influential ally in the region — and, no, it is not Israel.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has taken a look at Saudi Arabian attitudes toward Iran’s nuclear program:

senior and mid-level Saudi officials express an apparently unambiguous belief among the upper-echelon of the Saudi Government that the Iranian nuclear program does not solely exist for peaceful purposes. One senior Saudi official told staff confidently, “Iran is determined to get a nuclear weapon.”. . . One senior long-serving U.S. diplomat in Riyadh said he had “never met anyone from the King on down who didn’t think it was a nuclear weapons program.”

Saudi officials believe Iran wants a nuclear weapon in order to become a regional superpower, to alleviate a sense of marginalization, to serve as a deterrent, and to be a more dominant force in the Gulf. While senior Saudi officials describe a nuclear-armed Iran as “an existential threat,” most Saudi officials do not believe Iran would actually use nuclear weapons against Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia worries that Iranian nuclear weapons would encourage and enable the Iranians to pursue a more aggressive, hegemonic foreign policy in the region. However, it would be inaccurate to completely characterize SAG [Saudia Arabian government] anxiety regarding Iranian nuclear weapons as a purely “balance of power concern.” Based largely on Iran’s subversive activities directed against the Saudi regime in the 1980′s, some senior Saudi leaders find a nuclear-armed Iran especially disconcerting. Such past Iranian subversion efforts has imbued the senior Saudi leadership with an intense distrust of Tehran.

What do the Saudis think should be done about the mounting danger?

When presented with a hypothetical choice between a nuclear-armed Iran and a U.S. [preventive] attack, a significant number of Saudi officials interviewed explicitly or implicitly preferred a U.S. attack. A correlation seems to exist between the seniority of Saudi officials and views on Iranian nuclear weapons. More senior Saudi officials tended to be more “hawkish” in their viewpoint toward Iran. Some key Saudi officials believe a U.S. attack could set the Iranian nuclear program back over a decade. More cautious members of the senior inner circle express concern that a military attack would affect “everything and will not be easy to pull off,” and doubt whether a U.S. attack could destroy all key components of the Iranian nuclear program. Based on U.S. actions in Iraq, some key Saudi officials feared a “nightmare” scenario in which the U.S. attacks Iran but fails to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

The Saudis have a lot of oil, a lot of money, and a lot of influence in Washington. If the U.S. does take action, and if it is successful, they will surely reap some of the credit. And if it goes badly, we will surely hear from John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt that the “Israel Lobby” is to blame.