During a visit to Washington last month, Saudi Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman (KBS) assured the Biden administration that, despite the worsening war in the Gaza Strip, his government remains interested in opening diplomatic relations with Israel once the war in Gaza is over. Most notably, this includes the U.S.-Saudi mutual defense pact that Saudi leaders have long held up as a prerequisite to normalization. The Biden administration appears to agree. The day after Hamas’ horrific attack on Israel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken went on television to reiterate the Biden team’s claim that a grand bargain with the Saudi government “would really change the prospects for the entire region far into the future.”
In reality, a U.S.-Saudi mutual defense pact was a terrible idea before the Gaza war began, and it would be disastrous now. Pursuing such a deal at this point would be a striking moral and strategic error: it would undermine diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and the wider region, and would sign the United States up to defend an abusive, authoritarian regime that can offer in return only the ever-dimming prospect of normalized Saudi-Israeli relations.
Early on in the Israeli government’s military campaign against Hamas, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) spoke on the phone for the first time, months after the two neighbors, remarkably, resumed normal diplomatic relations back in March. This diplomatic conciliation is a welcome departure from years of dangerous tit-for-tat actions, including Iranian drones hitting Saudi targets and Saudi Arabia encouraging a U.S. military intervention in Iran. It has helped decrease tensions across the region and protect the ordinary people affected by their rivalry.
The Saudi read-out of the call said the two leaders discussed the need to communicate “with all international and regional parties to stop the ongoing escalation.” Since the call, Iran and Saudi Arabia took their diplomacy a step further with Raisi visiting Riyadh, the first visit of its kind in 11 years, for a summit on Palestine. At a moment when people in the region and across the world are terrified that the ongoing Gaza war could expand to include Iran, its regional allies, and perhaps Saudi Arabia itself, open lines of communication between Riyadh and Tehran are crucial to reducing the likelihood of region-wide conflict. The budding Saudi-Iranian détente can be a powerful force for stability in an intensely troubled time.
The Biden administration, however, seems intent on scuttling that détente. In his television appearance, Blinken listed Iran as being among the main targets of a U.S.-Saudi-Israeli megadeal. Concluding a U.S.-Saudi mutual defense pact would put huge pressure on the Iranian government to abandon the relationship. It would also undercut the Iranian government’s incentives to try to limit the escalatory actions of its regional allies. Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen have engaged in and attempted, respectively, low-level attacks against Israel since the war began, and their attacks could ramp up quite quickly. An Iranian government that sees a future for improved relations with Saudi Arabia is much more likely to use its unique leverage with these groups to curb their attacks. Yet the Biden administration is plowing ahead with a plan that would sour Iranian-Saudi relations dramatically.
And for what? The Biden administration has spent significant political capital pursuing a deal with Saudi Arabia that would bring no real benefit to the United States. But on the flip side, the proposed U.S.-Saudi mutual defense agreement would reportedly include a political commitment to defend Saudi Arabia in the event the kingdom is attacked, effectively staking U.S. credibility on sending Americans to fight on behalf of an authoritarian monarchy.
Additionally – and most dangerous of all for global security – the deal reportedly green-lights U.S. support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program. Experts rightly see an expanded Saudi nuclear program as a proliferation risk, and one likely to drive further nuclear development in Iran. These risks were never worthwhile, and are only more alarming in the current climate.
To the extent that there is a logic to the deal from the U.S. side, it rests on the idea that a U.S.-Saudi pact would induce Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel. Israeli-Saudi normalization was never as valuable as its champions made it out to be – the two states already have clandestine relations and most of Saudi Arabia’s allies have already opened relations. But now, as the number of civilians killed in the Israeli government’s war in Gaza continues to rise and people across the region express outrage, the claims that normalization is just around the corner seem less believable than ever. Whatever incentive there once was to pursue normalization is unlikely to outweigh the domestic political risks of embracing the Israeli government at this moment.
The Biden administration has the chance for a hard reset of its policy in the region, focused on ending the spiraling conflict in Gaza, reducing risks of regional escalation, and pursuing a more inclusive version of regional integration. Instead, the administration is compromising hard-won diplomatic progress in the region to pursue a false vision of stability. A U.S.-Saudi-Israeli grand bargain may provide some shiny headlines in the short term. But a U.S.-Saudi mutual defense pact increases the chances that horrors like those we are witnessing in Gaza will expand in scope and severity, in turn jeopardizing security in Israel and throughout the region, and in the long run, it could pave the path for a regional nuclear arms race. Another path is possible — but only if the United States can envision a model of regional integration that reflects the region as it is, not as the Biden administration wishes it to be.