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Op-Ed

Saudis and the Bomb

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on November 8, 2013

One of the most significant stories to appear in some time is the one in which it was reported that Saudi Arabia was said to have purchased a weapon from Pakistan ready for delivery if and when Iran goes nuclear.

Underlying this story are two themes; one about how urgent it is to prevent Iran from going nuclear and the second is what it says concerning how the Arabs view the state of Israel.

Because Iran directly threatens Israel, and because Israel sees a nuclear Iran as an existential threat, there is too often a distorted focus on the Israel component of the issue. Some of us, however, have been saying for the longest time that the reason the world must act is not primarily because of the threat posed to Israel, as real as that is, but because a nuclear Iran would set in motion a proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region that would multiply the risk of nuclear confrontation and world conflagration many times over.

President Obama himself has made this point many times but it seems to get lost in all the coverage about what Israel may or may not do and about possible gaps between the U.S. and Israel over the issue.

The Saudi report should refocus attention on the most important reason to stop Iran and why diplomacy, which would be the preferred solution, holds as well particular dangers.

If Saudi Arabia goes through with reported plans for a nuclear device, it is almost inevitable that Turkey and possibly Egypt would join them creating an unprecedented level of instability in the region.

Conflicts which already are out control such as between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the area would now take on a different meaning with nuclear-armed states.

The Saudi story also speaks to the way negotiations between Iran and the US need to play out. While Israel has expressed a number of concerns about the negotiations - that Rouhani's words are just words, that sanctions must not be eased prematurely, that better no deal than a bad deal - future Saudi reactions, particularly related to the possibility of their acquiring a nuclear weapon, must be taken into account. And one must assume that for Saudi Arabia, like Israel, if an agreement is reached that still allows Iran to enrich uranium with the possibility of a speedy breakout to a weapon, that would be a bad deal, one which could lead them to move expeditiously themselves on the nuclear front.

Secretary of State John Kerry has reiterated several times in recent weeks that America would rather not sign a deal than sign a bad one.

The incentive for the U.S. to stick to this approach should increase significantly because of the impact a bad deal might have on Saudi decision making.

A second fascinating theme that is illuminated by the Saudi story concerns the Arab world and Israel. Rarely talked about, but now illuminated by Saudi behavior, is the contrast between the way they react to Israel and Iran on the nuclear issue. While Israel neither affirms nor denies having nuclear weapons, the Arabs (and others) have believed that Israel has had a nuclear arsenal since the late 1960's. Yet, despite consistent public rhetoric over the years about how bad and threatening the Jewish state is, neither the Saudis, with all their oil money, nor any of the other Arab states with the exception of the two crazies, Iraq under Saddam and Libya under Qaddafi, ever felt the urgency to acquire their own weapon to counter Israel. The contrast in Saudi behavior to a potential Iranian bomb is dramatic.

This is a classic and monumental example of the importance of watching what governments do rather than what they say. The inaction for decades has demonstrated that, as much as they disliked the idea of a nuclear Israel, they did not fear it.

This reality serves to undermine the essential anti-Israel claim in the international community, that Israel is an expansionist state that jeopardizes the Arab Middle East. Supporters of Israel have made major efforts to counter this picture, describing Israeli peace efforts over the years, pointing out that Israel has withdrawn from territory it won in wars on numerous occasions and indicating that all Israel wants is to live in peace and security with its neighbors.

The absence of any action by the Saudis to a nuclear Israel and the visceral fear exhibited to a nuclear Iran make the point better than all these arguments. The Arabs haven't countered a nuclear Israel because they know Israel is not a dangerous country.

The agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia on the two points discussed here - the threat of Iran, the non-threat of Israel - should be the basis for a new relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia as well as others in the Arab world.

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"This is a classic and monumental example of the importance of watching what governments do rather than what they say."

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