US and Saudi officials are discussing the terms of a mutual defense treaty that would resemble the robust military pacts the US has with its close allies Japan and South Korea, a key component of President Biden’s high-stakes diplomacy to get Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, according to US officials.
Under such an agreement, the United States and Saudi Arabia would generally promise to provide military support if the other country were attacked in the region or on Saudi territory. The discussions to model the terms after treaties in East Asiaconsidered among the strongest the US has outside its European pacts, has not previously been 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 of his talks with the Biden administration on Israel, current and former U.S. officials said. Saudi officials say a strong defense deal will 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 US officials fear could be cover for a nuclear weapons program to counter Iran.
Any treaty with Saudi Arabia that resembles US pacts with East Asian allies is sure to draw strong objections in Congress. Some senior US lawmakers, including top Democrats, see the Saudi government and Prince Mohammed as unreliable partners who care little about American interests or human rights.
A deal would also raise questions about whether Mr Biden will get the US more militarily intertwined with the Middle East. And such a treaty would also run counter to the Biden administration’s stated goal of reorienting U.S. military resources and combat capabilities away from the region and toward deterring China specifically in the Asia-Pacific region.
The American discussions with Saudi Arabia and Israel have mainly revolved around Prince Mohammed’s demands from the Biden administration. That diplomacy is expected to come up on Wednesday, when Mr. Biden plans to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Sir. Biden cited the benefits of nations normalizing ties with Israel in a wide-ranging speech at the United Nations on Tuesday morning.
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 any new defense deal. The Pentagon has just under 2,700 US troops in the kingdom, according to a letter the White House sent to Congress in June.
Sir. Biden’s push for a Saudi-Israel deal is a gamble that not long ago would have been hard to imagine. He promised during his 2020 presidential campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah”. And brokering a deal could be a political boon for Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right government, which US officials have sharply criticized for its efforts to weaken Israel’s judiciary and its encouragement of settlement building in Palestinian territories.
But U.S. officials have said a diplomatic pact would be an important symbolic alleviation of Arab-Israeli tensions and could also have geopolitical implications for the United States. Bringing Saudi Arabia closer to the United States, they argue, could draw the kingdom further from China’s orbit and blunt Beijing’s efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East.
In a public appearance Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said 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 an agreement “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 briefed influential Democratic lawmakers on the negotiations, whom the administration would have to persuade to approve the treaty to obtain the 67 votes needed in the Senate, or two-thirds of that chamber.
A majority of Senate Democrats have voted on several occasions to limit Washington’s arms sales and other security cooperation with Riyadh, protesting the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, which has been aided by American weapons, and the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in I In 2018, an assassination that US spy agencies have ruled 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 worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world.
Democratic lawmakers are also pressing the Biden administration over reports that Saudi border forces have recently killed hundreds or thousands of African migrants trying to cross into the kingdom from Yemen. Human Rights Watch published a report in August on the 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 “unfounded”.
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 forge alliances around the world to counter a global Soviet presence.
The first US security treaty with Japan was sealed in 1951, during the US occupation of Japan after World War II, and then revised in 1960. It allows the United States to keep armed forces there, saying that if an attack takes place against an element of either of these two nations in territories under Japan, each country would “act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”
Michael Green, a senior director for Asia at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said the two treaties were “pretty ironclad” in terms of US military commitment in the event of hostilities and in bringing both countries under a US nuclear deterrence umbrella. In practical terms, the US has closer military ties to South Korea because the two countries have a joint command on the peninsula.
Japan was a defeated and demilitarized nation when it and the United States made their treaty, and American officials at the time did not envision another country attacking Japan or vice versa, Mr. Green. Given the ongoing tensions in the Middle East — and the fact that Saudi Arabia is embroiled in a war in Yemen — a Japanese-style treaty approved by the Senate would likely involve clearing “a much higher political bar ,” he added.
But Julian Ku, professor of international and constitutional law at Hofstra University, has written that the language of mutual defense in the treaty with Japan and in treaties the United States has with other allies in the region, including PhillipinesAustralia and New Zealand, is not as strong as is usually thought.
“The treaty is deliberately vague to allow for different responses in different circumstances,” Mr. Cow in an email. “If you contrast this with the language in NATO, which specifically refers to treaty assistance by ‘such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force’, it is striking how diluted the treaty language in Korea and Japan is.”
“So one could imagine a US treaty with Saudi Arabia that is structured like the Japan Treaty that technically does not 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 several trips to Saudi Arabia since May as part of the push for normalization, keeping Mr. Netanyahu and his aides informed of Prince Mohammed’s demands. Besides the difficult questions surrounding a potential US-Saudi security agreement and civilian nuclear cooperation, there are many questions about what the Saudis would offer Israel in the way of concessions to the Palestinians. Prince Mohammed has not spoken much publicly about it, but his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, is a strong advocate of Palestinian rights.
Some American commentators on Middle East politics have urged the Biden administration to refrain from making a deal that would give Israel’s government a political victory that could help it stay in power.