As geopolitics in the militarily-volatile Middle East are undergoing radical changes, including a rapprochement between two former bitter enemies, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the United States is trying to broker a deal described as ground-breaking: diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
But how realistic is this?
In a June 6 Opinion piece titled “From Tel Aviv to Riyadh,” New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, a longstanding expert in Middle Eastern politics, said when he started working in the region, “Jews were not welcome to visit Saudi Arabia unless their last name was Kissinger”.
As Friedman points out the Saudis want Israel’s help with the US Congress to secure a long-term American-Saudi security deal, a civilian nuclear energy program and access to America’s most advanced weapons—in exchange for Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel.
If this deal works out, will it also enhance Saudi Arabia’s long-term plans to go nuclear—from civilian to military?
And even before Saudi Arabia established relations with Iran, it also declared its “promise to match Iran in nuclear capability”.
A letter from a group of Democratic lawmakers to President Joe Biden last week cautions him to “take a more guarded approach to Saudi Arabia” because China is helping the Saudis build ballistic missiles—and eventually perhaps a nuclear deal.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir, a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University (NYU), told IDN the discussions over the potential of normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia have been going on for some time—behind the scenes.
“There is no doubt that the Saudis want to exact some concessions from the US in particular before normalizing relations with Israel.”
This, he said includes: securing a long-term commitment by the US to guarantee the Saudis’ security along with a civilian nuclear energy program and access to America’s most advanced weapons, said Dr Ben-Meir, who taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.
The problem that makes the Saudi demand nearly impossible to meet is three-fold:
First, there is still some mending of the bilateral US-Saudi relations to be done. Although the Biden administration knows the geostrategic importance of Saudi Arabia, it is still uncertain about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) vision and ambition—where he wants to lead his country and how consistent that might be with the US’ overall regional geostrategic interest.
“Basically, the US is looking for more clarity and to reach some kind of mutual understanding before offering a blanket security guarantee to the Saudis”.
Second, the Biden administration is still extremely hesitant to provide Saudi Arbia with a civilian nuclear energy program.
The administration is deeply concerned about the proliferation of nuclear programs, including for civilian purposes, especially now that the administration seeks a new understanding with Iran to limit its nuclear programs, said Dr Ben-Meir.
“The Obama-era prospect of providing a nuclear umbrella for all the Middle East countries at peace with Israel may still be revived, but the likelihood for that to happen is slim at this juncture.”
Third, Prime Minister Netanyahu does not enjoy the kind of sway in the US Congress nor with the administration, as he used to, in the past.
President Biden still refuses to invite Netanyahu for an official visit to the White House because of the latter’s efforts to undermine Israel’s democracy by subordinating the judiciary to elected officials, and also because Netanyahu faces three criminal charges.
In addition, there is really no good chemistry between the two, which makes Netanyahu the least effective, said Dr-Ben Meir.
Tariq Rauf, former Head of Verification and Security Policy, at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told IDN seeing its neighbours developing nuclear power plants, such as Iran, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey and Egypt, Saudi Arabia has been prioritizing a nuclear programme.
For several years now, especially after the July 2015 JCPOA agreement between the EU/E3+3 and Iran, which allowed Iran to continue its uranium enrichment under IAEA verification; Saudi Arabi has been pressing the United States for a nuclear cooperation agreement (123 agreement) much like that of the UAE.
The sticking point, said Rauf, has been that the US has been insisting on a “gold standard” set by the UAE under which the UAE gave an undertaking not to develop an indigenous uranium enrichment programme but to buy its nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear suppliers. Not only Saudi Arabia, but no other country except for the UAE has accepted the “gold standard.
“Even South Korea rejected it when renewing its nuclear cooperation agreement with the US.”
Saudi Arabia is on record as saying that if Iran is allowed uranium enrichment, or if Iran goes on to develop nuclear weapons, there is no way it will renounce such a capability.
The Saudi energy ministry has stated that the Kingdom will initiate a peaceful nuclear power programme utilizing international best practices in close cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rauf said.
“Furthermore, it is rumoured that Saudi Arabia may offer to normalize relations with Israel as a sweetener to the US. But the Saudis may be chasing rainbows, as the US is in no position to supply Saudi Arabia or any other country US-built nuclear power reactors.”
This is because reactor manufacturer companies, Westinghouse has been bought by Toshiba, and General Electric by Mitsubishi.
The US, Rauf pointed out, has not built a new nuclear power reactor from the ground up for decades. Hence, Saudi Arabia is seeking nuclear power reactors from other suppliers such as Russia, South Korea and China.
Areva, France’s reactor constructor has been facing difficulties completing its own EPR-1600 reactor, as is the case with the EPR-1600 under construction in Finland.
“Any country buying nuclear power reactors from South Korea, which are based on licensed US nuclear technology, require it to have in place a 123 agreement with the US. Thus, Saudi Arabia may have to buy from either Russia or China, declared Rauf.
Elaborating further, Dr Ben-Meir said: “To my knowledge, however, there is another requirement that the Saudis are insisting upon, which is finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.
Given that Saudi Arabia was the country that introduced the Arab Peace Initiative (API) in 2002, it feels obligated to stand by the Palestinians, especially now that Saudi Arabia has become the de facto leader of the Arab states.
That said, the Saudis fully understand that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reach a full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement at this time. But they do insist that Israel commit itself to the two-state solution and establish a peace process that will lead the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Furthermore, the Saudis made it clear that Israel must formally commit to stop building new settlements and cease and desist from annexing more Palestinian land. Given however the extreme right-wing character of the current Netanyahu-led government, there is no chance that Netanyahu can agree to the Saudi demands if he wants to keep his government together.
He badly wants to preserve his government both for personal as well as for ideological reasons.
“To be sure, given the difficulties inherent in these back-channel discussions, I do not believe that the prospect of normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations is around the corner,” said Dr Ben-Meir.
“Some of the dynamics of the relationships between the players involved will have to change to create a more conducive political environment, which might have to wait until after the 2024 US presidential elections,” he predicted.