Saudi Prince Turki urges nuclear option after Iran

RIYADH, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, voicing alarm about Iran’s nuclear programme, has said the leadership should consider acquiring nuclear weapons to counter threats from Tehran, and from Israel.

The prince, seen as influential though no longer holding public office, noted that Israel is widely assumed to have a nuclear arsenal and that Iran, Riyadh’s arch-rival in the Middle East, is believed by many to be developing such weaponry.

“If our efforts, and the efforts of the world community, fail to convince Israel to shed its weapons of mass destruction and to prevent Iran from obtaining similar weapons, we must, as a duty to our country and people, look into all options we are given, including obtaining these weapons ourselves,” he told a conference in Riyadh on Monday.

The remarks were covered in the Saudi press on Tuesday.

Prince Turki has argued for a nuclear-free Middle East in previous speeches, but is now also pushing the idea that the conservative Islamic kingdom might enter an atomic arms race if Iran, its bitterest regional rival, became a nuclear power.

Few analysts believe Riyadh, the world’s top oil exporter and a key ally for the United States, is likely to embark upon a weapons programme in defiance of U.S. calls for restraint. But Turki’s remarks signal the extent of concern over non-Arab Iran’s military ambitions among Arab Gulf countries.

In his speeches, the prince has always repeated Saudi Arabia’s official policy that the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme can only be solved through diplomacy and he has repeatedly warned against a military confrontation.

However, Turki has been more outspoken in public than other leading Saudis against what Riyadh sees as Iranian expansionism in the Middle East. U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks showed the kingdom’s leaders discreetly urging Washington to take stronger measures, including military action, against Iran.

In June, a British newspaper quoted Turki as telling NATO officials that Saudi Arabia would have to develop nuclear weapons if Iran, its adversary in a confrontation that opposes Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim forces, succeeded in acquiring them.

Iran, like Saudi Arabia a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), insists its nuclear programme is exclusively for generating electricity. It has suffered heavy sanctions from international powers demanding it halt activities that they believe are intended for military purposes.

Israel, which has a policy of neither confirming nor denying that it has nuclear weapons, says it would not sign up to a ban until there were a comprehensive regional peace that included Iran, Saudi Arabia and others. That is a position effectively endorsed by Washington, Israel’s most important ally.

Saudi Arabia is estimated to spend as much as 10 percent of national income on its armed forces. It is also exploring the possibility of setting up its own nuclear power programme to reduce its consumption of oil, freeing up more crude for export. (Reporting by Asma Alsharif in Riyadh and Angus McDowall in Dubai; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)