The Kingdom's Nukes

Nov 30, 2017
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By some accounts, the “crowning achievement” of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy may be just hours away.

According to Reuters (and other media outlets), the U.S. and key European allies, along with Russia and China, are closing in on a “2 or 3 page agreement” that would form the basis for a nuclear accord with Iran

While negotiators on both sides stress that “success is still uncertain” (and we can only hope that assessment is correct), many observers believe that an agreement will be reached before the 31 March deadline.  In the rush to secure an accord, Secretary of State John Kerry–with the full support of President Obama–has reportedly caved on a number of Iranian demands.  Details from the AP and Fox News:

“Details of the emerging deal include a possible trade-off which would allow Iran to run several hundred centrifuges in a once-top secret, fortified bunker site at Fordo, in exchange for limits on enrichment and nuclear research and development at other sites — in particular, Iran’s main facility at Natanz.
The terms of the agreement have not been confirmed and were shared with The Associated Press by officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.  

According to the AP report, no centrifuges at Fordo would be used to enrich uranium, but would be fed elements like zinc, xenon and germanium for separating out isotopes for medicine, industry or science. 
Initially, the P5+1 partners, which include the U.S., U.K., Russia, France, China and Germany, had wanted all centrifuges stripped away from the Fordo facility. However, under this reported deal, Iranian scientists would be prohibited from working on any nuclear research or development program there, and the number of centrifuges allowed would not be enough to produce the amount of uranium it takes to make a bomb within a year anyway, according to the officials.  

The site also would be subject to international inspections.”

But the list of American concessions doesn’t end there.  As the Washington Free Beacon reported on Thursday, the U.S. is backing away from “essential” demands that Iran account for its past nuclear activities:

“Once again, in the face of Iran’s intransigence, the U.S. is leading an effort to cave even more toward Iran—this time by whitewashing Tehran’s decades of lying about nuclear weapons work and current lack of cooperation with the [International Atomic Energy Agency],” said one Western source briefed on the talks but who was not permitted to speak on record.

With the White House pressing to finalize a deal, U.S. diplomats have moved further away from their demands that Iran be subjected to oversight over its nuclear infrastructure.

“Instead of ensuring that Iran answers all the outstanding questions about the past and current military dimensions of their nuclear work in order to obtain sanctions relief, the U.S. is now revising down what they need to do,” said the source.  “That is a terrible mistake—if we don’t have a baseline to judge their past work, we can’t tell if they are cheating in the future, and if they won’t answer now, before getting rewarded, why would they come clean in the future?”

Yet, as hard as it is to fathom, the emerging nuclear deal may not represent the ultimate debacle of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy.  Amid his long list of failures of Middle East failures–Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan–the worst may be yet to come.  In his rush to conclude a deal with Iran, President Obama and his minions may be triggering a nuclear arms race in the region, something the U.S. has successfully prevented for more than 50 years.

Consider the case of Saudi Arabia.  For decades, the kingdom has relied on U.S. leadership–and our military presence–to maintain stability in the world’s most volatile region.  Now, with Washington leading from behind (and busily cutting its military power), the Saudis realize they can no longer count on their long-time ally.  It’s a conclusion that other partners in the Middle East have also arrived at, including Egypt, Oman, Qatar, the Emirates and Jordan.  Their dwindling confidence in Mr. Obama is one reason that Egypt launched strikes against ISIS in Libya without notifying the U.S.  And just this week, Saudi forces initiated military operations against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.  There was no consultation with the U.S. before the first air strikes.    

From Riyadh’s perspective, there was no reason.  Over the past few months, the Saudis have watched the Obama Administration enter into a de facto with Iran against ISIS in Iraq.  Thousands of Shia fighters and members of Iran’s Quds force are now fighting ISIS terrorists across Iraq, raising fears that Tehran (and its proxies) will eventually turn their sights on Saudi Arabia.  These concerns escalated in recent weeks, with the sudden American pull-out from Yemen, and the Houthi triumph.  With Iranian-backed factions near its northern and southern borders, the Saudis feel they have no other option that unilateral military action.

But the House of Saud has greater fears.  The Saudi Royal Family–and their government–has been positively stunned by the “progress” of nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran.  In Riyadh, there is little doubt the expected accord will allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.  And if the kingdom can no longer count on the Americans for protection, then Saudi Arabia will obtain its own nuclear deterrent.

The timeline for this acquisition will be measured in weeks and months–not years.  According to the U.K. Guardian, the Saudis bankrolled up to 60% of the development costs associated with Pakistan’s nuclear program.  In return, Islamabad agreed to provide nuclear warheads to Saudi Arabia on short notice.  Not the technology needed to build warheads, but the actual, finished weapons, ready to mount on a suitable delivery platform.

And Riyadh has been busy on that front as well.  Newsweek reported last year that Saudi Arabia bought a “turn-key” ballistic missile system from China (with tacit U.S. approval) in 2003.  The solid-fuel CSS-5 East Wind is a marked improvement over the older DF-3s the Saudis purchased from Beijing in the late 1980s.  Envisioned as a counter-weight to Saddam’s growing Scud force, Saudi Arabia elected not to use them during the first Gulf War, when dozens of Iraqi missiles were fired at allied targets in the kingdom.  According to some analysts, the DF-3s were too inaccurate; Saudi leaders feared collateral damage and heavy civilian casualties if the older Chinese missiles had been used in that conflict.

By comparison, the DF-21/CSS-5 is a medium-range system that is much more accurate and could be used against targets like the compounds used by Iranian leaders, or larger military bases.  The U.S. government allowed the sale, after determining the CSS-5s shipped to Saudi Arabia were not nuclear-capable.  But other accounts suggest the newer missiles have been subsequently modified to carry nuclear warheads, weapons that would be (presumably) supplied by Pakistan.

Riyadh certainly has the financial resources and political connections to make it happen.  For years, Chinese technicians have supplied the technical expertise needed to maintain and operate Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile forces.  Many of those experts hare housed in special quarters in the Saudi capital, or King Khalid Military City.  Vehicles carrying Chinese technicians are frequently seen near bases involved with the Saudi missile program.  

Unlike technologically advanced countries that could rapidly build their own nuclear weapons (including Japan and Taiwan), the Saudis must only modify existing deals and call in a few markers.  With Iran on the verge of joining the nuclear club–and the expected treaty paving the way for that capability–Riyadh is taking no chances.  Indeed, there is actually a chance that Saudi Arabia could obtain a rudimentary nuclear capability before Tehran, with a handful of nuclear-tipped CSS-5s (and more to follow).  The same holds true for other nations around the Persian Gulf, who could also buy from Pakistan, or obtain their weapons through the Saudis. 

When word of a U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal is announced in a few days, the White House will describe it as a “breakthrough” and a diplomatic landmark.  It is, of course, nothing of the sort.  And what’s worse, that agreement will mark the start of an inevitable nuclear arms race in the Middle East.  And we all know how that will turn out.  

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