U.S. and Saudi officials are discussing the terms of a mutual defense treaty that would resemble the robust military pacts the United States has with close allies Japan and South Korea, a central component of President Biden’s plan. high risk diplomacy to ensure that Saudi Arabia normalize relationships with Israel, according to US officials.
Under such an agreement, the United States and Saudi Arabia would generally commit to providing military support if the other country is attacked in the region or on Saudi territory. The discussions to model the terms after the treaties in east asiaconsidered among the strongest that the United States has outside its European pacts, had not been previously reported.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, views a mutual defense agreement with the United States as the most important element in his talks with the Biden administration on Israel, current and former US officials said. Saudi officials say a strong defense deal would help deter possible attacks by Iran or its armed partners, even as the two regional rivals restore diplomatic relations.
Prince Mohammed also calls on the Biden administration to help his country develop a civil nuclear programwhich some US officials fear could be a cover for a nuclear weapons program to counter Iran.
Any deal with Saudi Arabia that is similar to U.S. pacts with its East Asian allies is sure to draw strong objections in Congress. Some senior US lawmakers, including top Democrats, view the Saudi government and Prince Mohammed as unreliable partners who care little about US interests or human rights.
A deal would also raise questions about whether Biden will get the U.S. More militarily intertwined with the Middle East.. And such a treaty would also contradict the Biden administration’s stated goal of reorienting American military resources and combat capabilities away from the zone and toward deterring China specifically in the Asia-Pacific region.
The United States’ talks with Saudi Arabia and Israel have largely revolved around Prince Mohammed’s demands on the Biden administration. That diplomacy is expected to emerge on Wednesday, when Biden plans to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Biden mentioned the benefits of nations normalizing ties with Israel in a wide-ranging speech at the United Nations on Tuesday morning.
The US military has bases and troops in both Japan and South Korea, but US officials say there are currently no serious discussions about having a large contingent of US troops in Saudi Arabia under any new defense agreement. The Pentagon has just under 2,700 US troops in the kingdom, according to a letter that the White House sent to Congress in June.
Biden’s push for a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel is a tactic that, not long ago, would have been difficult to imagine. During his 2020 presidential campaign, he promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” And negotiating a deal could be a political boon for Netanyahu’s far-right government, which U.S. officials have sharply criticized for its efforts to weaken Israel’s judiciary and its encouragement of settlement construction in Palestinian areas.
But U.S. officials have said a diplomatic pact would be an important symbolic defusing of Arab-Israeli tensions and could also have geopolitical significance for the United States. They argue that bringing Saudi Arabia closer to the United States could push the kingdom further out of China’s orbit and weaken Beijing’s efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East.
In a public appearance on Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel would be a “transformative event in the Middle East and far beyond.” But he said getting the parties to agree “remains a difficult proposition” and that a deal was far from certain.
The State Department declined to comment on the details of the discussions for this article.
In recent months, White House officials have received information about the negotiations to influential Democratic lawmakers, whom the administration would need to persuade to approve the treaty to get the necessary 67 votes in the Senate, or two-thirds of that chamber.
Most Senate Democrats have voted on multiple occasions to restrict Washington’s arms sales and other security cooperation with Riyadh, objecting to the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, which has been aided by American weapons. , and the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, a murder that American spy agencies have judged was ordered by the prince. (He has denied direct involvement).
Democratic lawmakers also putting pressure on the Biden administration over reports that Saudi border forces recently killed hundreds or thousands of African migrants trying to cross into the kingdom from Yemen. Human rights observer published a report in August about atrocities. U.S. officials cannot say with certainty that no U.S. training or weapons were provided to the forces that carried out the killings. Saudi Arabia has said the reports are “baseless.”
The separate defense treaties the United States has with Japan and South Korea were forged after devastating wars in the mid-20th century and as the Cold War intensified, forcing the United States to form alliances around the world to counter the global Soviet presence. .
The first American security treaty with Japan was sealed in 1951, during the American occupation of Japan after World War II, and was later revised in 1960. that allows The United States maintains its armed forces there and says that if any attack occurs against an element of one of those two nations in the territories under Japan, each country would “act to confront the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.” “
Michael Green, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said the two treaties were “pretty ironclad” in terms of a U.S. military commitment in the event of hostilities and to subdue both. countries to a US nuclear deterrent. umbrella. In practical terms, the United States has closer military ties with South Korea because the two countries have joint command on the peninsula.
Japan was a defeated and demilitarized nation when it signed its treaty with the United States, and U.S. officials at the time did not envision another country attacking Japan or vice versa any time soon, Green said. Given ongoing tensions in the Middle East – and the fact that Saudi Arabia is involved in a war in Yemen – getting the Senate to approve a Japanese-style treaty would likely involve clearing “a much higher political bar,” he added.
However, Julian Ku, professor of international and constitutional law at Hofstra University, He has written that language on mutual defense in the treaty with Japan and in treaties the United States has with other allies in the region, including the philippinesAustralia and New Zealand, is not as strong as commonly thought.
“The treaty is deliberately vague to allow for different responses for different circumstances,” Ku said in an email. “If you contrast this with NATO language, which specifically refers to a treaty that helps through ‘such actions as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force,’ it is striking how watered down the Korea-Japan treaty language is.”
“So one can imagine a US treaty with Saudi Arabia that is structured like the Japan treaty, which does not technically require US action but is understood to represent a serious commitment in the event of an attack,” he added. .
White House and State Department officials have made numerous trips to Saudi Arabia since May as part of the push for normalization, and have kept Mr. Netanyahu and his aides informed on Prince Mohammed’s demands. In addition to thorny issues surrounding a potential US-Saudi security treaty and civil nuclear cooperation, questions abound about what the Saudis would ask of Israel in terms of concessions to the Palestinians. Prince Mohammed hasn’t spoken much publicly about it, but his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, is a strong supporter of Palestinian rights.
Some American commentators on Middle East policy have called on the Biden administration refrain from making any deal That would give Israel’s government a political victory that could help it stay in power.