RIYADH (Reuters) - The specter of an atomic arms race in the world's most volatile region has heightened the stakes in Iran's nuclear talks after Saudi Arabia's repeated hints it would seek its own atomic weapons if Tehran ever did the same.
Riyadh's unprecedented action in assembling a coalition of other Sunni Muslim countries to bomb Tehran's Houthi allies in Yemen this week has shown how seriously it takes the threat from Iran, and how much more assertive its foreign policy has grown.
For the kingdom's Al Saud dynasty, locked for the past decade in a regional tussle with Iran's revolutionary theocratic rulers, the prospect of Tehran gaining a nuclear bomb, which it denies seeking, is a nightmare scenario.
But it is far from clear whether the Western-allied Al Saud would really risk their country becoming a pariah state by aggressively pursuing a course of action that would bring down demands for sanctions, or whether it is a bluffing.
Top Saudi princes have repeatedly said that Riyadh will push for the same nuclear rights world powers agree with Iran in the talks taking place in Lausanne, but have also hinted that if negotiations fail to stop Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons, they will do the same.
"If Iran possessed a nuclear bomb, Saudi Arabia would have to think very seriously about offsetting that. Saudi Arabia would not sit idly by," said Abdulaziz al-Sager, head of the Gulf Research Center based in Jeddah and Geneva.
The knowledge that the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom and other Middle East countries could seek the same terms as Iran for their own proposed civilian nuclear programs has weighed on countries negotiating a deal.
"If a deal is seen as giving Iran something that is not expected, it will become the new international standard and clearly other countries, including Saudi Arabia, will seek the same. It's why we're so concerned," said a diplomat in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia's proposed nuclear power program has stalled in recent years over arguments over how extensive it should be and which government agency should control it, but Riyadh has still signed atomic cooperation deals with several countries.
ASSERTIVE FOREIGN POLICY
That Riyadh considering a nuclear weapons program is even taken seriously is evidence of how far its relationship with the United States has changed in recent years after disagreements over Egypt and Syria following the Arab Spring.
Although it still regards Washington as a close ally, Saudi Arabia no longer believes it can count on the United States to defend it, and its allies, against what it sees as Iranian expansionism in Arab countries since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein.
Its action in Yemen is seen within the kingdom as evidence that a more forthright, assertive era is emerging in Saudi foreign policy, one that is based on it orchestrating direct action against Iran instead of relying on Western help.
"If it happens, as probably, that we win in Yemen, it will mark the end of Iran's decade of strength in the region and Saudi influence will become stronger and stronger," said Saud al-Sarhan, a researcher at the King Faisal Center in Riyadh.
"Now the gloves are off," he added.
A central element of this more aggressive Saudi posture is its relationship to other Sunni states in the region, particularly its security ties with Egypt and nuclear power Pakistan.
Both Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Riyadh as King Salman worked to build a regional Sunni coalition to counter Iran.
Gaining any kind of atomic weapons capability would involve breaching the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), potentially leaving Riyadh open to the sort of pariah status and tough sanctions now endured by Iran.
The Saudi economy is far more reliant on international trade than is Iran's, but its crude oil exports are far more important for the global economy, making it tough to enforce any economic sanctions effectively.
"I don't think it would face sanctions. If you have a quarter of the world's energy reserves you do not get sanctioned This is a bluff by the international community that it could sanction Saudi Arabia," said the diplomat.
One commonly voiced possibility is that instead of attempting to use its civil nuclear program to build a bomb, a complex process that is hard to keep secret, Saudi Arabia could instead buy a weapon from Pakistan, or come under its umbrella.
"Saudi Arabia has sent enough indications. It has a very strong relationship with Pakistan, which has some capability. If my neighbor possesses it, why do I have to wait until I'm under threat? I will protect my interests," said Sager.