By Tariq Rauf*
The Biden administration has characterized securing the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel as a national security matter and is actively working to achieve its goal.
US domestic politics is driving the Biden policy that sees Saudi-Israel normalization as a “foreign policy win” for an aging and weak president.
Though Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace agreement with Israel, few other Arab states have recognized Israel. The Trump administration, citing the “threat” from Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, helped establish diplomatic relations between Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel in 2020.
In an arrogant and silly act of hubris, these “normalization” agreements were dubbed as “Abraham Accords”. The Palestinians condemned these accords as a “stab in the back”.
Cognizant of the weakness and incoherence of the Biden administration and of the US’ declining credibility in the region of the Middle East and beyond, Saudi Arabia cleverly has been driving a hard bargain.
Riyadh is steadfastly behind its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, endorsed by all member states of the Arab League for “a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” that, among other things, links any normalization with or recognition of Israel with (a) withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories including but not limited to southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights; (b) the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian State; and (c) implementing an equitable and fair solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees and their resettlement in their traditional lands under illegal Israeli occupation.
Reportedly, among Riyadh’s other demands to Washington are: (a) a NATO-level mutual security treaty or guarantee along with commitment to continue supply of front-line US military equipment, technology and servicing; and (b) a bilateral civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement that fully preserves Saudi Arabia’s rights to develop a complete nuclear fuel cycle under IAEA safeguards as ensured under the Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT), under section 123 of the 1945 US Atomic Energy Act.
Saudi Arabia plans to build nuclear plants
Reportedly, Riyadh’s present nuclear plans include the proposed construction of two nuclear power plants (NPPs), pared back from its ambitious 2013 plan for 16 NPPs.
For its part, the US is continuing to insist that Saudi Arabia agree to the so-called “gold standard” of committing never to enrich uranium or to reprocess spent or used nuclear reactor fuel and to implement the IAEA’s “additional protocol” to Riyadh’s NPT comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA—along the lines of the UAE.
No other non-nuclear-weapon country with a “123 agreement” has accepted the so-called “gold standard,” and neither does Saudi Arabia, which wants to retain the option for uranium enrichment for nuclear energy use since Iran has been permitted the technology under the 2015 JCPOA.
In addition, many in Washington resist giving Riyadh a formal security guarantee, and it is unlikely that the US Congress would ratify a formal treaty to this effect.
Furthermore, another complicating factor is that the “Agreed Minute” to the 2009 UAE-US “123 agreement” stipulates that if the US concludes a more favorable 123 agreement with another Middle East country, at the UAE’s request the US would need to amend the “123 agreement” on equally favorable terms to the Emirates.
Unfortunately, it seems that Riyadh is not including in its demands that the US brings Israel to the table at the UN Conference for establishing a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East or for Israel to be compelled to accede to the NPT and dismantle its nuclear weapons and accept full-scope comprehensive IAEA safeguards.
*Tariq Rauf is the former Head of Verification and Security Policy, responsible for applying IAEA safeguards and establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).