President Vladimir Putin met with Prince Mohammed bin Salman on June 18 to ink six agreements, one of with is the use of nuclear energy with peaceful purposes and purchase of Russian weapons.

As the US-Iran nuclear talks wind to their conclusion, Saudi Arabia is on a shopping spree and loading up on nuclear and weapons. With 91% already agreed upon, all signs are pointing to the fact that Britain alongside the US and France will reach an agreement and agree to some of Iran’s long-standing central demands.

As the US and the UK continue to strategically withdraw from the Middle East after decades of financial and human loss that has led to few tangible gains and in fact brought turmoil to numerous countries in the region, Saudi kingdom lacks faith in the ability of the US nuclear security umbrella to protect them from a so-called Iranian nuclear attack.

From the Kingdom’s perspective, Tehran is building a nuclear weapon in a secret facility that is not and will not be on the map for inspections. Thus, Saudi is tightening relations with countries who have nuclear know-how like United States, France, South Korea, China, Pakistan and Argentina.

France and Saudi Arabia just inked on June 24 an arms deal worth $12 billion (€10.7 billion) in deals. This deal, however, stands apart from the other, more garden-variety multi-billion dollar deals for advanced jets and ships in that the package includes feasibility studies for two nuclear reactors, as well as professional training on both nuclear safety and waste treatment, according to a report from Defense News.

Under one of the agreements Airbus will sell 23 H-145 multipurpose helicopters to Saudi Arabia for €500 million as well as launch a feasibility study into building the reactors, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

Fabius also mentioned the Saudi Arabian Airlines order for 50 Airbus passenger planes valued at $8 billion, first announced at the Paris Air Show, held earlier this month.

The study for two European Pressurised Reactors (EPR) — which France considers the safest and most advanced in the world — takes on added significance given the current efforts by Saudi Arabia’s rival, Iran, to develop its own nuclear capabilities.

In addition to the study, France will sign an agreement to train the Saudis on nuclear safety and the treatment of nuclear waste.

Fabius also announced a “commitment” from Saudi Arabia to acquire about 30 patrol boats for its navy.

On June 18th, President Vladimir Putin met with Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister) and signed six cooperation agreements in St. Petersburg. Putin accepted King Salman’s invitation to visit Riyadh handed him by the prince and invited the king to visit Moscow. Among the signed agreements is the use of nuclear energy with peaceful purposes, which could provide the legal framework to Russian-Saudi nuclear cooperation as well as other multiple issues such as space and infrastructure. Russia will also take part in the management of 16 nuclear reactors.

Speaking at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Russian Energy Minister Aleksandr Novak, announced that this agreement will concern not only nuclear energy but also oil and gas projects. Moreover, he added that in 2015, after 5 years of inactivity, the Saudi-Russian intergovernmental commission will come out of retirement.

The coordination committee will deal with the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes, the creation of working groups to organize specific research project, exchange of experts, organization of seminars and workshops, assistance in education and training of scientific and technical personnel and the exchange of scientific and technical information.

There are key agreements inked in which were not made public such as the Saudi purchase of Russian weapons.

The Russian Kommersant newspaper reported that Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the officials accompanying him are not the only delegates from Riyadh who visited Russia, according to Veterans Today. Saudi military officials participated in the Army 2015 International Military Technical Forum took place in Kubinka. Citing a source in the Saudi delegation, TASS wrote that the Saudi military wishes to discuss the purchase of the Russian Iskander-E tactical ballistic missile systems, Veterans Today reported.

The President of King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE), Dr. Hashim Abdullah Yamani, and the Director General of ROSATOM, Sergey Kirienko, confirmed and announced the finalization of that understanding.

According to Kommersant, it is unlikely that a deal for supplying Riyadh with Iskander systems will be reached soon. Iskander manufacturer Konstruktorskoye Byoro Mashynostroyeniya has a backlog of orders from the Russian Defense Ministry. It will only have an opportunity to take foreign orders from 2016-2017.

This deal has been made possible despite the differences between the two countries on foreign policy issues (like Syrian and Yemeni crisis) and shows the ductility of Saudi Arabia, a State that can cooperate with both United States and Russia on different issues, remarking that its moves are taken in accordance to national interest and not following mere affiliation with one country or “faction”, rather than another.

In May, South Korea and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement for a feasibility study for building two reactors worth a total of $2 billion. And this deal was announced on the heels of an agreement between Argentina and Saudi Arabia on nuclear R&D. Not to mention, Saudi Arabia is also making good on its arrangement to buy nukes off the shelf from Pakistan.

Saudi Nuclear Defense Contingency Plan Emerges

Saudi Arabia has for past several years been laying the groundwork for a civil nuclear program with no PMDs.

In 2013, Japan and Saudi Arabia reached a nuclear agreement. Just a year earlier, there was also an agreement with China for closer technological and economic cooperation, according to the Wall Street Journal.

However, the shopping spree may evolve from civil to a defensive. The Kingdom might begin to engage in contingency planning for a defensive nuclear program with PMDs.

According to a blog written by Nawaf Obaid, what we are seeing to emerge is a Saudi nuclear defense doctrine – a thoroughly planned and fully conceptualised nuclear defence doctrine, which is a matter of necessity in the face of changing geopolitical realities:

This emerging doctrine is based on two fundamental pillars. First, in order to produce a nuclear program with PMDs, a fully operative domestic civil nuclear program must be in place, and the Kingdom has in fact been working on the foundations of such a program for years. When the late King Abdullah decided to pursue a comprehensive national civil nuclear program, he established the King Abdullah Atomic Energy City (KACARE) that centralized all nuclear related research in Saudi Arabia. At KACARE, Saudi nuclear scientists have already carried out the strategic planning on a nuclear program, and plans are in place to spend around $80 billion over the next twenty years to build about sixteen nuclear power reactors.

The second fundamental pillar of the doctrine is that the addition of PMDs to the Saudi nuclear program would be carried out for purely defensive reasons. For years, the Kingdom has been the primary leader in pushing for a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Free Zone in the Middle East. It has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, the Saudis have to face the reality that all the numerous attempts to keep the Middle East free of WMDs have failed. Israel’s nuclear weapons program being the prime example of this failed policy. Therefore, if they must develop a defensive weaponized nuclear program in order to protect themselves and their allies, they will do so.

Obaid, who is a visiting fellow and associate instructor at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, also wrote that “the Saudi scientific community possesses the know-how and technical infrastructure to realise this nuclear defense doctrine” as Saudi nuclear physicists have received PhDs from Harvard, MIT, Oxford and other top American and British universities and have been conducting advanced nuclear physics research for years. Moreover, the Kingdom’s $2 billion a year foreign scholarship program (there are currently about 15,000 students in the UK alone), numerous future Saudi nuclear physicists are being trained.

The plans for an indigenous program capable of using established methods of producing plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) are already in place, and several Saudi nuclear scientists have earned their PhD’s researching new forms of civil nuclear technology. In short, foundational work is well underway at KACARE to realize the three essentials to producing HEU: a nuclear fuel fabrication supply chain, the manufacture of centrifuges and related technologies, and the storage of fuel and centrifuges in various stages of usability.

… in order for Saudi Arabia to implement its nuclear defense doctrine, it needs the capability to produce HEU, the skills to add PMDs to that nuclear program, and the advanced deliverable systems onto which nuclear warheads can be placed. It now possesses all three of these elements.

Many feel that the nuclear agreement being considered between Iran and the P5+1 adequately prevents Iran from quickly weaponising its nuclear program. But Obaid claims that “this is pure speculation based on difficult calculations regarding several issues: the number and type of installed, operable centrifuges Iran is allowed to maintain, its inventory of enriched uranium, the level of inspection access, and enhanced intelligence and compliance enforcement. Iran’s current timeframe for acquiring enough HEU to make a nuclear bomb is around 2 to 3 months, but the US and France (with Britain of course) are attempting to push that to one year, which they feel is enough time to detect an Iranian so-called “mad dash” to weaponisation”.

He continues, “Given that the proposed agreement allows Iran to maintain 5,060 centrifuges dedicated to enriching uranium, and that the nation has a long history of fettering inspections, intelligence and enforcement attempts, it seems highly unlikely that the P5+1 will be able to garner a deal that will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon relatively quickly”.

Arabia Gulf Closely Watches As Iran Becomes Battleground for Weapons Sale

Arabian Gulf countries are closely watching Iran’s anticipated re-integration into the international community as it may develop into a Russian-Chinese-Western battleground for arms sales, regional experts said.

Since the announcement of the Lausanne agreement, Russia has lifted its weapons exports ban to Iran and announced it will supply the S-300 missile system purchased in 2010.

And on April 5, the head of the Iran-China Joint Chamber of Commerce, Asadollah Asgaroladi, announced that Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Iran in the “near future,” according to the Fars press agency.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries disapprove of this Russian arms sale, according to Defense News.

Despite Russia and the GCC tendering a strong relationship since 2009, where the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have struck a number of arms deals with their Russian counterparts, Iran remains Russia’s largest customer in the region.

Experts said that Russia trying to strengthen its relations with Iran, Russia trying to show its independence of the American political influence in the region, or even the Russians trying to pave [the] way for deals with Iran ahead of the nuclear agreement signing

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the recent Russian-Iranian reversal of the S-300 export ban has been due to the nuclear agreement, signaling Russia’s intent to intensify arms sales to Iran ahead of competition.

“Initially, the decision to suspend the implementation of the contract, which was already signed and came into force, was made in September 2010,” he told Russian news agency TASS. “It was done in the interests of support for consolidated efforts of the six international negotiators to stimulate a maximally constructive process of talks on settlement of the situation around Iran’s nuclear program.”

Sources close to the Russian Defense Ministry believe Iran is unlikely to start buying Western and US weapons once the sanctions get lifted, said Yuri Barmin, a Russian political and military analyst.

“Tehran would be better off purchasing Russian arms and there are in fact existing contracts that need to be implemented first,” Barmin said.

Igor Korotchenko, the head of the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade, assessed that Iran needs $11 billion to $13 billion in Russian arms, Barmin said.

“Iran has an ambitious program to rearm its Army, and Russia could become Tehran’s main arms supplier,” he added.

China is looking to increase its annual trade with Iran from $52 billion to $60 billion.

“Asia is a hot market more for Russia than China with sales to countries such as Malaysia and India, but the competition is also showing a mixed sales picture of various types of systems that are, at the end of the day, interoperable,” said Theodore Karasik, a gulf-based geopolitical affairs consultant to Defense News.

“The Chinese-Russian competition in Asia, when it comes to arms, is not in sales,” he said. “It’s in technology and politics. Over the past decades, both Moscow and Beijing have engaged in a race, if you will, for sales of equipment versus modified technology.”

Karasik said Iran is actually a nexus of Chinese-Russian cooperation.

“The Chinese-Russian calculus regarding Iran is all about integration because of ongoing shifts in the geostrategic environment, the Chinese-designed ballistic and cruise missiles complement other inventory of Russian-designed small arms, and now anti-aircraft systems are the norm,” he said.

“The Chinese approach is unique to Beijing where Norinco, Aviation Industry Corp. of China, Poly Technologies and China South Industries Group outsmart the competition by selling package deals that fit the requirements of the current tactical environment where Chinese political and economic interests are most intense,” Karasik added.

Sources close to the Russian Defense Ministry believe Iran is unlikely to start buying Western and US weapons once the sanctions get lifted, said Yuri Barmin, a Russian political and military analyst.

“Tehran would be better off purchasing Russian arms and there are in fact existing contracts that need to be implemented first,” Barmin said.

Igor Korotchenko, the head of the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade, assessed that Iran needs $11 billion to $13 billion in Russian arms, Barmin said.

“Iran has an ambitious program to rearm its Army, and Russia could become Tehran’s main arms supplier,” he added.

Russia’s strong resurgence in the geopolitical scene and the changes in and around the Middle East will make Iran a field of intense competition between Moscow and Washington in the foreseeable future, said Muhammed Bin Saqr al-Sulami, a Saudi Arabia-based Iranian military and political affairs specialist.

Al-Sulami wrote in a paper published in March that Iran’s nuclear deal may open business and arms trade while Russia, a long-term supplier, may lose ground, according Defense News.

“From my understanding of the Iranian political mentality, Iran’s political, intellectual and ideological leadership does not trust Moscow, but [they still] benefit in times of crises for many reasons, including the intersection of their national interests,” he said.

“Currently, there is a good political and economic relationship between the two countries, however that does not wipe the bloody history between the two as the Russian presence on the Iranian arena was very negative,” he wrote. “Russia defeated Iran in two major wars during the first half of the nineteenth century and carved out parts of the Iranian territory as well as sharing the influence with the British on Iranian territory during the era of their Constitutional Revolution between 1905-1911, therefore this will not change the Iranian public mood toward Russia.”

China has been equipping the Iranian military since the 1980s, but their sales have dropped since the turn of the millennium.

“Chinese arms sales to Iran fell off sharply around 2000,” said Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. “I think this was in part Beijing trying to demonstrate to the world that it was not supporting a supposed terrorist state, to appease Israel, which has been an important if sporadic supplier of military technology to China; and also to perhaps to curry favor with conservative gulf states.

“China and Iran had a very close arms-collaboration arrangement in the 1980s and 1990s, where China was a significant supplier of conventional armaments to Iran, used during the Iran-Iraq War,” he said.

“During the 1990s, China became a pretty significant supplier of systems that Iran subsequently license-produced or reverse-engineered,” Bitzinger said. “In particular, it manufactured Chinese-developed anti-ship cruise missiles, particularly the C-802 and C-70, and surface-to-air missiles, the Chinese FM-80, which was a reverse-engineered French Crotale. China also exported its Houdong-class fast attack craft to Iran.”

However, he said, the Iranians already have a “good enough” arms-manufacturing industry for armored vehicles, tanks and other equipment, allowing them to decide to cut out the Chinese. “Chinese arms sales to Iran are negligible these days,” he said.

Russia is potentially a more important supplier, Bitzinger said, but even then, Iran will not be a major buyer of Russian equipment, mostly due to money shortages and the desire to build up its own industry.

Despite the fact that Iran has more than 300 American military aircraft and is the sole foreign customer of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, the sanctions lift will not pave the way for US military sales — yet.

“In any event, the US has committed only to lift its nuclear-related sanctions,” said Daniel Waltz, partner at Washington-based legal consultancy Squire Patton-Boggs. “It has not committed to lifting those sanctions that relate to other subjects, e.g., proliferation or terrorism. Cooperation between the US and Iranian defense sectors will be among the last of the US barriers to Iranian trade that will be removed.”

European and American aircraft manufacturers, however, will be more focused on providing services and upgrades to the large Iranian civil aviation sector for the time being.

Moreover, this path may also represent the concretion of the will of Saudi Arabia to follow a nuclear growth. Do we have any insurance that this story won’t end up like the Iranian case? Of course not. The only hope is that Saudi Arabia isn’t regarded as a “rogue state” – as Iran instead is – and shouldn’t behave as such, but in a perspective of an unstable region, every possibility is still open.

According to the Treaty of Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), no country can be denied the inalienable right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but the shopping spree could become much more aggressive and push the Saudis to try and gain the supreme weapons of mass destruction in order to defend themselves from perceived threats. Consider what happened with Libya, Syria and its current aggression towards Yemen.

Saudi Arabia has been attacking different areas in Yemen since late March, without any authorisation from the United Nations and heedless of international calls for the cessation of its deadly campaign against the Arabian Peninsula country.

This should be of big concern to everyone considering the Saudi spending power, which would allow at any time the “purchase” – also on the black market – of the technology and know-how needed to get to the bomb. This is not as far fetched, especially to countries with powerful financial reserves backed with oil, because, if realized, it would be detrimental to what is already a tense situation in the Middle East and a possible domino effect.

*****

Lady Michelle Jennifer Santos  is the Chief Visionary Founder and Owner of TheSantosRepublic. A motivational speaker, she also specialises in high finance, commodities, strategy and geopolitics. Her Twitter is @mj_santos and Facebook/ladymjsantos

You can follow TSR on Twitter: santosrepublic and Facebook/TheSantosRepublic.

 

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Lady MJ Santos is the Founder/CEO of The Santos Republic Systems. Her professional background is political and media strategy, asset and credit enhancement, international trade and development and public speaking. For two consecutive years, she was awarded by Silicon Valley’s TRIPBASE as their favourite “writer to be revered and respected” of all the world politics blogs from across the internet for “displaying knowledge and temerity in her approach matched only by her success in the political and managerial circles”.

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