American and Saudi officials are discussing terms of a mutual defense treaty that would resemble the robust military pacts that the United States has with its close allies Japan and South Korea, a central component in President Joe Biden’s high-stakes diplomacy to get Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, according to U.S. officials.
Under such an agreement, the United States and Saudi Arabia would generally pledge 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 treaties in East Asia, considered among the strongest the United States has outside of its European pacts, have not been previously reported.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, regards a mutual defense agreement with the United States as the most important element in his talks with the Biden administration about Israel, current and former U.S. officials said. Saudi officials say a strong defense agreement would help deter potential assaults by Iran or its armed partners even as the two regional rivals reestablish diplomatic ties.
Crown 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 cover for a nuclear weapons program to counter Iran.
Any treaty with Saudi Arabia that is similar to the U.S. pacts with East Asian allies is sure to draw strong objections in Congress. Some senior U.S. lawmakers, including top Democrats, see the Saudi government and Crown Prince Mohammed as unreliable partners who care little about U.S. interests or human rights.
An agreement would also raise questions about whether Biden is getting the United States more militarily entwined with the Middle East. And such a treaty would also contradict the Biden administration’s stated goal of reorienting U.S. military resources and fighting capabilities away from the area and toward deterring China specifically in the Asia-Pacific region.
The U.S.’ discussions with Saudi Arabia and Israel have mainly revolved around Crown Prince Mohammed’s demands of the Biden administration. That diplomacy is expected to come up 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 broad speech at the United Nations on Tuesday morning.
The U.S. military has bases and troops in both Japan and South Korea, but American officials say there are currently no serious discussions about having a large contingent of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia under any new defense agreement. 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 Saudi-Israel deal is a gambit that, not long ago, would have been hard to imagine. He pledged during his 2020 presidential campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” And brokering a deal could be a political boon for Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government, which American officials have sharply criticized for its efforts to weaken Israel’s judiciary and its encouragement of settlement building 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. Bringing Saudi Arabia closer to the United States, they argue, could pull the kingdom farther from China’s orbit and blunt Beijing’s efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East.
In a public appearance Sept. 15, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel would be a “transformative event in the Middle East and well beyond.” But he said that 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 details of the discussions for this article.
In recent months, White House officials have given briefings about the negotiations to influential Democratic lawmakers, whom the administration would need to persuade to approve the treaty in order to obtain the 67 necessary votes in the Senate, or two-thirds of that chamber.
A majority of Senate Democrats have voted on multiple occasions to restrict Washington’s arms sales and other security cooperation with Saudi Arabia, objecting to the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, which has been aided by U.S. weapons, and the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, a murder that U.S. spy agencies have judged was ordered by the prince. (He has denied direct involvement.)
The Saudi-led war in Yemen, which Crown Prince Mohammed began in 2015, resulted in mass killings of civilians and what the United Nations called the worst human-made humanitarian crisis in the world.
Democratic lawmakers are also pressing the Biden administration on reports that Saudi border forces recently killed hundreds or thousands of African migrants who were trying to cross into the kingdom from Yemen. Human Rights Watch released a report in August on the atrocities. U.S. officials cannot say for sure that no U.S. training or weapons were provided to the forces who carried out the killings. Saudi Arabia has said the reports are “unfounded.”
The separate defense treaties that the United States has with Japan and South Korea were forged after devastating wars in the mid-20th century and as the Cold War was intensifying, compelling the United States to stitch together alliances around the world to counter a global Soviet presence.
The first U.S. security treaty with Japan was sealed 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 armed forces there and says that if any attack takes place against an element of one 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.”
The United States and South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea, signed a security treaty with similar language in 1953, when the Korean War halted under an armistice.
Michael Green, a senior Asia director 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 in bringing both countries under a U.S. nuclear deterrence 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 it and the United States entered into their treaty, and American officials at the time did not envision another country attacking Japan or vice versa anytime soon, Green said. Because of the constant tensions in the Middle East — and the fact that Saudi Arabia is involved in a war in Yemen — getting a Japan-style treaty approved by the Senate would probably involve clearing “a much higher political bar,” he added.
However, Julian Ku, a professor of international and constitutional law at Hofstra University, has written that the language about mutual defense 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, is not as strong as commonly thought.
“The treaty is deliberately vague in order to allow different responses for different circumstances,” Ku said in an email. “If you contrast this to the language in NATO, which specifically refers to treaty assisting by ‘such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force,’ it is striking how watered down the Korea and Japan treaty language is.
“So one can imagine a U.S. treaty with Saudi Arabia that is structured like the Japan treaty, which does not technically require U.S. action, but is understood to represent a serious commitment in case 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 on normalization, and they have kept Netanyahu and his aides informed about Crown Prince Mohammed’s demands. Besides the thorny issues surrounding a potential U.S.-Saudi security treaty and civil nuclear cooperation, questions abound about what the Saudis would ask of Israel in terms of concessions to the Palestinians. Crown Prince Mohammed has not talked much in public about that, but his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, is a strong advocate of Palestinian rights.
Some American commentators on Middle East policy have called on the Biden administration to refrain from making any deal that would give Israel’s government a political win that might help it stay in power.
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