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Biden aides discuss Asian pacts as model for Saudi defense treaty


U.S. and Saudi officials are discussing terms of a mutual defense treaty that would resemble the strong military pacts the United States has with close allies Japan and South Korea, a central plank of high-stakes diplomacy of President Biden to get Saudi Arabia to normalize relations. with Israel, according to American officials.

Under such an agreement, the United States and Saudi Arabia would typically commit to providing military support if the other country was attacked in the region or on Saudi territory. Discussions aimed at shaping terms on East Asian treaties, 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, views a mutual defense agreement with the United States as the most important element of his discussions with the Biden administration on Israel, U.S. officials said current and former. Saudi officials say a strong defense deal would help deter possible aggression from Iran or its armed partners, even if the two regional rivals restore diplomatic ties.

Prince Mohammed is also calling on the Biden administration to help his country develop a civilian nuclear program, which some U.S. officials say could serve as cover for a nuclear weapons program aimed at countering Iran.

Any treaty with Saudi Arabia similar to U.S. pacts with its East Asian allies is sure to draw strong objections in Congress. Some senior U.S. lawmakers, including senior Democrats, view the Saudi government and Prince Mohammed as unreliable partners with little regard for U.S. interests or human rights.

A deal would also raise questions about whether Mr. Biden succeeds in further tying the United States militarily to the Middle East. And such a treaty would also contradict the Biden administration’s stated goal of redirecting U.S. military resources and combat capabilities away from the region and toward deterring China, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

US discussions with Saudi Arabia and Israel have mainly revolved around Prince Mohammed’s demands of the Biden administration. That diplomacy is expected to take place 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. Mr. Biden mentioned the benefits of normalizing relations with Israel in a wide-ranging speech to the United Nations on Tuesday morning.

The U.S. military has bases and troops in 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 in the framework of a new defense agreement. The Pentagon has just under 2,700 U.S. troops in the kingdom, according to a letter sent to Congress by the White House in June.

Mr. Biden’s push for a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel is a gamble that not long ago would have been hard to imagine. He pledged during his 2020 presidential campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” And negotiating a deal could be a political boon for Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right government, which U.S. officials have sharply criticized for its efforts to weaken Israel’s justice system and its encouragement of settlement building in Palestinian areas. .

But U.S. officials have said a diplomatic deal 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 push the kingdom out of China’s orbit and weaken Beijing’s efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East.

In a public appearance 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 added that reaching an agreement between the parties “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 need to persuade to approve the treaty in order to secure the 67 votes needed in the Senate, or two-thirds of this room.

A majority of Democratic senators have repeatedly voted to restrict Washington’s arms sales and other security cooperation with Riyadh, opposing the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, which has been facilitated by American weapons , and the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2017. In 2018, a killing that US intelligence agencies ruled was ordered by the prince. (He denied any direct involvement.)

The Saudi-led war in Yemen, started by Prince Mohammed in 2015, has led to massacres of civilians and what the United Nations has called the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis.

Democratic lawmakers are also pressing the Biden administration over reports that Saudi border forces recently killed hundreds, if not thousands, of African migrants trying to enter the kingdom from Yemen. Human Rights Watch released a report on these atrocities in August. 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 said the reports were “baseless”.

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 intensified, forcing the United States to form alliances around the world to counter the 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 revised in 1960. It allows the United States to maintain armed forces there and stipulates that if a attack takes place against an element of either nation in the territories under Japan, each country would “act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and procedures.”

Michael Green, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said the two treaties were “ironclad” in terms of U.S. military engagement in the event of hostilities and subjugation of two countries to the American nuclear deterrent. umbrella. Concretely, the United States maintains 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 U.S. officials at the time did not envision another country attacking Japan or vice versa in the near future, said Mr. Green. Due to ongoing tensions in the Middle East – and the fact that Saudi Arabia is embroiled in a war in Yemen – getting the Senate to approve a Japan-style treaty would likely involve clearing “a much higher political bar” , he added.

However, Julian Ku, a professor of international and constitutional law at Hofstra University, wrote that the mutual defense language in the treaty with Japan and in treaties the United States has with other Japan allies region, notably the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand, New Zealand is not as strong as is generally believed.

“The treaty is deliberately vague to allow for different responses depending on the circumstances,” Mr. Ku said in an email. “If you compare that to NATO language, which specifically refers to treaty assistance by “such actions as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force”, it is striking how watered down the text of the treaties between Korea and Japan is.

“So one can imagine a treaty between the United States and Saudi Arabia that would be structured like the treaty with Japan, which would not technically require American action, but which would 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 normalization efforts, and have kept Mr. Netanyahu and his aides informed of Prince Mohammed’s demands. In addition to thorny issues surrounding a possible U.S.-Saudi security treaty and civilian nuclear cooperation, questions abound about what the Saudis would ask of Israel in terms of concessions to the Palestinians. Prince Mohammed hasn’t said much about it publicly, but his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, is a staunch defender of Palestinian rights.

Some U.S. commentators on Middle East politics have called on the Biden administration to refrain from making any deals that would give the Israeli government a political victory that could help it stay in power.