Speaking at a campaign event on October 20, President Biden clearly linked Hamas’s brutal surprise attack on Israel to the highly publicized normalization talks with Saudi Arabia, explaining, “One of the reasons Hamas moved on Israel … they knew that I was about to sit down with the Saudis.”
While the talks have since paused, the incentives for rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel still remain, assuming a wider war does not confound the present calculus.
Saudi Arabia reportedly stands to benefit from U.S. nuclear assistance and a potential defense pact if the deal goes through, which would represent a galactic shift in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Normalization was already a prized goal for Israel, but it is now highly incentivized to isolate Hamas from the Arab world by normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia and building on the Abraham Accords. And President Biden may view a breakthrough as his legacy achievement in the Middle East, given that the Iran nuclear deal is hanging by a thread.
As presently envisioned, the tripartite deal relies on the United States to grease the wheels for there to be any breakthrough in normalization talks. But it is some expensive grease. The United States and Saudi Arabia have spent a decade negotiating the limits of a nuclear power program to no avail, and Saudi leadersroutinelythreaten to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does.
Acceding to Saudi demands on this issue would represent a stark break in U.S. nonproliferation policy, but the transfer of enrichment technology is highly unlikely. Instead, the United States’ pursuit of influence over the program might result in concessions, allowing Riyadh access to enrichment capabilities without exerting control over them, unlike the situation with Iran. The measure of policy success should be the extent of knowledge and technology retained by Riyadh in the event of U.S. withdrawal.
Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Quest
Since its inception, the Saudi nuclear program has never been fully isolated from regional security dynamics. Saudi Arabia announced its nuclear ambitions in 2006 along with the heads of the other Gulf Cooperation Council members at a time when Washington was warming up to the idea of negotiating with Iran over its by-then halted military nuclear program. While the Saudis have played up the energy security angle, the initially quiet, and eventually explicit, message was that if Iran was allowed to maintain its nuclear program, then the Saudis must follow along in stride.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have tried to negotiate a nuclear cooperation agreement (NCA) since 2012. An NCA would provide assurances for the peaceful use of nuclear technology, and the key point of contentions has been over access to enrichment and reprocessing technology. If a state develops a latent nuclear capacity with ostensibly peaceful nuclear technology, the threat of proliferation can hang over all security interactions. Specifically, a state’s possession of uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing technologies determines its latent capacity to produce the fissile material for the core of a nuclear weapon, which is the challenge presently posed by Iran.
The Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations all eventually settled on requiring Saudi Arabia to forgo enrichment and reprocessing technology — also known as the “gold standard” which the UAE and Taiwan have adhered to — and to implement an Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog. The exact conditions are uncertain, but reports suggest that building an enrichment plant with Saudi investment, either in the U.S. or, as suggested by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace nuclear expert Mark Hibbs, a black-box centrifuge enrichment plant in Saudi Arabia but under complete U.S. control, is under discussion today.
Regarding safeguards, Saudi Arabia is finally in negotiations with the IAEA to grant nuclear inspectors access to sites where nuclear material may be present. For almost two decades, the country maintained minimal safeguards for its growing nuclear program. While it was not an imperative for Saudi Arabia to negotiate an Additional Protocol with the IAEA until it was prepared to handle large quantities of nuclear material, addressing these concerns earlier would have alleviated proliferation fears. Not doing so raised more questions about Riyadh’s intentions.
The Slippery Slope and the Role of Congress
Saudi Arabia views the Iran nuclear deal as the regional standard and argues that if Iran can maintain its enrichment program — even though the country suffers from crippling economic sanctions — then Riyadh should similarly be allowed access to the full nuclear fuel cycle. If the United States deviates from its long-standing nonproliferation policy and enables a path to Saudi enrichment, then the UAE will likely renegotiate the terms of its NCA, Turkey and Egypt may turn to Russia and China for enrichment plants, and the region may slide into a nuclear race.
However, Congress has a significant oversight role to play. It should sound strange that Congress gets the ultimate say in whether there is a normalization deal between two countries on the other side of the world, but Riyadh’s conditions of U.S. nuclear assistance will require congressional approval and a defense pact might require congressional approval. While any NCA would require congressional review, a defense pact, on the other hand, could come in many different forms.
For example, a NATO-style Article 5 commitment that an attack on one ally is considered an attack on all would require congressional ratification while a Bahrain-style Comprehensive Security Integration and Prosperity Agreement (C-SIPA) is an internationally binding agreement that does not require congressional ratification. The political lift and the role of Congress depends on the final shape of each condition. However, it is prudent to prepare for the scenario that U.S.-Saudi relations deteriorate; an imaginable scenario as U.S. lawmakers have called to withdraw troops over oil disputes as recently as last year, and presidential candidate Joe Biden said he would make them “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”
In an October 24 readout from the White House, President Biden and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman “affirmed the importance of working towards a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians as soon as the crisis subsides, building on the work that was already underway between Saudi Arabia and the United States over recent months.” Normalization talks may resume at some point, but it is crucial for the U.S. inter-agency process and Congress to prioritize long-term nonproliferation threats over meeting Riyadh’s immediate demands.
Samuel M. Hickey is the Paul A. Castleman Policy Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy and a research associate at the Center for International & Security Studies at Maryland. Hickey's research is focused on the intersection of science and policy in the field of international security.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fist bumps U.S. President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Al Salman Palace, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?