The United States is discussing the terms of a mutual defense treaty with Saudi Arabia that U.S. officials say would resemble military pacts with Japan and South Korea. This step is central to President Biden’s diplomacy to help the kingdom normalize relations with Israel.
Under such an agreement, the United States and Saudi Arabia would typically promise to provide military support if the other country is attacked in the region or on Saudi territory. The discussions to model the terms after the East Asia treaties, considered among the strongest the United States has outside its European pacts, have not previously been reported.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, sees a mutual defense deal with the United States as the key element in his talks with the Biden administration over Israel, current and former US officials said. Saudi officials say a strong defense deal would help deter potential attacks by Iran or its armed partners, even as the two regional rivals restore diplomatic ties.
Prince Mohammed is also asking the Biden administration to help his country develop a civilian nuclear program, which some U.S. officials fear could be a cover for a nuclear weapons program to counter Iran.
Any treaty with Saudi Arabia that is similar to U.S. pacts with East Asian allies is certain to meet strong objections in Congress. Some senior U.S. lawmakers, including top Democrats, view the Saudi government and Prince Mohammed as unreliable partners who care little about U.S. interests or human rights.
An agreement would also raise questions about whether Mr. Biden will more closely intertwine the United States militarily with the Middle East. And such a treaty would also contradict the Biden administration’s stated goal of refocusing U.S. military resources and combat capabilities away from the region, and toward deterring China, specifically in the Asia-Pacific region .
The American talks with Saudi Arabia and Israel mainly revolved around Prince Mohammed’s demands on the Biden administration. That diplomacy is expected to come up on Wednesday, when Mr. Biden plans to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Mr. Biden, in a wide-ranging speech at the United Nations on Tuesday morning, cited the benefits of countries normalizing ties with Israel.
The U.S. military has bases and troops in both Japan and South Korea, but U.S. officials say there are currently no serious discussions about having a large contingent of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia under a new defense treaty. The Pentagon has just under 2,700 U.S. troops in the kingdom, according to a letter the White House sent to Congress in June.
Biden’s push for a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel is a gamble that would have been difficult to imagine not so long ago. He promised during his 2020 presidential campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” And brokering 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 solution to Arab-Israeli tensions and could also have geopolitical significance for the United States. Bringing Saudi Arabia closer to the United States, they argue, could further pull the kingdom out of China’s sphere of influence and blunt 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 beyond.” But he said reaching an agreement between the parties “remains a difficult proposition” and that a deal is 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 provided briefings on the negotiations to influential Democratic lawmakers, who the administration would need to convince to approve the treaty to get the 67 necessary votes in the Senate, or two-thirds of that chamber.
A majority of Senate Democrats have voted on multiple occasions to limit Washington’s arms sales and other security cooperation with Riyadh, objecting to the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, which was aided by U.S. weapons, and the assassination of the Washington Post-journalist Jamal Khashoggi in In 2018, an assassination that was reviewed by US spy agencies was ordered by the prince. (He has denied direct involvement.)
The Saudi-led war in Yemen, which Prince Mohammed started in 2015, resulted in mass killings of civilians and what the United Nations called the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis.
Democratic lawmakers are also pressuring the Biden administration over reports that Saudi border forces recently killed hundreds or thousands of African migrants trying to enter the kingdom from Yemen. Human Rights Watch released a report on the atrocities in August. U.S. officials cannot say with certainty that no U.S. training or weapons were provided to the forces that committed the killings. Saudi Arabia has said the reports are “baseless.”
The United States’ separate defense treaties with Japan and South Korea came after devastating wars in the mid-20th century and as the Cold War intensified. This forced the United States to bring together alliances around the world to counter the Soviet Union’s global presence. .
The first U.S. security treaty with Japan was signed in 1951, during the U.S. occupation of Japan after World War II, and then revised in 1960. It allows the United States to keep its armed forces there and says that if an attack occurs on any element of either of those two nations in the territories under Japan, each country would “act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”
Michael Green, a senior Asia director at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said the two treaties were “pretty rock-solid” in terms of a U.S. military commitment in the event of hostilities and in bringing both countries under a US nuclear deterrent. umbrella. In practical terms, the United States has closer military ties with South Korea because the two countries have a joint command on the peninsula.
Japan was a defeated and demilitarized nation when the country and the United States made their treaty, and American officials at the time did not envision that another country would soon attack Japan or vice versa, Mr. Green said. Due to ongoing tensions in the Middle East – and the fact that Saudi Arabia is embroiled in a war in Yemen – getting a Japanese-style treaty approved by the Senate would likely mean “setting a much higher political bar” be lifted,” he added.
However, Julian Ku, a professor of international and constitutional law at Hofstra University, has written that the mutual defense language in the treaty with Japan and in treaties the United States has with other allies in the region, including the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand Zeeland, Zeeland is not as strong as is often thought.
“The treaty is deliberately vague to allow for different responses to different circumstances,” Ku said in an email. “If you compare this to the language in NATO, which specifically refers to treaty assistance by ‘what action it deems necessary, including the use of armed force,’ it is striking how diluted the language of the treaties between Korea and Japan is.”
“So you can imagine a U.S. treaty with Saudi Arabia that is structured like the treaty with Japan, which technically does not require U.S. action but is believed to represent a serious commitment in the event of an attack,” he added to.
White House and State Department officials have made numerous trips to Saudi Arabia since May as part of the push for normalization, and they have kept Netanyahu and his aides briefed on Prince Mohammed’s demands. In addition to the thorny issues surrounding a possible US-Saudi security treaty and civilian nuclear cooperation, there are also many questions about what the Saudis would ask of Israel in terms of concessions to the Palestinians. Prince Mohammed has not spoken much about this publicly, 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 not to make any deal that would give the Israeli government a political victory that could help it stay in power.