US failure to act against Saudi Arabia will embolden Iran
Joe Biden’s administration released a report last week indicating that Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and de facto ruler of the kingdom, allowed a hit-squad to “kill or capture” Jamal Khashoggi, a troublesome reporter lured from the United States to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and assassinated in 2018. Yet Washington appears to be doing remarkably little about it, at least so far.
The report was a declassified and sanitized version of a Discovery of the CIA 2018 that the crown prince was responsible, largely on the basis of Turkish spies who bugged the consulate and bugged the smartphones of the 15-man Saudi strike team. Donald Trump, even though he doubted Prince Mohammed’s professions of innocence, chose to do nothing. But President Biden has threatened to treat Saudi Arabia like an outcast. Now, after a long ramp-up, his team seems to be saying, well, it’s complicated.
This will only fuel the doubts, shared by friends and enemies of the United States, about American reliability – the currency Biden is determined to rekindle by declaring America is back.
Trump penalized 17 Saudis. From now on, 76 will be refused visas under a new “Ban on Khashoggi “ to deter regimes that persecute dissidents and journalists. It also targets the Rapid Response Force, an extraterritorial strike team that serves as the crown prince’s praetorian guard. Ahmed al-Assiri, former Saudi deputy chief of intelligence, obtains full sanctions; Prince Mohammed receives no sanction.
The United States wants “not to sever the relationship but to recalibrate [it] to be more in tune with our interests and our values ”, Secretary of State Antony Flashing says.
Murder, especially the way Khashoggi, a disenchanted courtier and Washington Post columnist, has been slaughtered, is not a matter of tone. Maher Mutreb, a brigadier-general who was one of the prince’s bodyguards and head of the strike team, was recorded by Turkish intelligence asking “has the sacrificial animal ever arrived?” ” a minute before Khashoggi entered the consulate.
Publicly proclaiming the future king of Saudi Arabia as the responsible man has consequences, even if the Biden administration refuses to impose sanctions on him. As the report makes clear, after a Shakespearean streak of palace coups in 2017, all of the kingdom’s security and intelligence agencies responded to Prince Mohammed. He rejects Saudi’s explanation of independent rendition gone awry, and says it was not a rogue operation but a prince turned rogue.
Failure to act against Saudi Arabia, paradoxically, will embolden Iran, Riyadh’s rival for regional hegemony, which has its own reasons for not believing the United States. Tehran is declining an invitation to talks with the United States on reopening the 2015 nuclear deal from which Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018.
Yet even under Biden’s former boss Barack Obama, the United States was largely suspicious. Obama blinked first in his clash with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, illegal settlements in the West Bank. He also refused to apply his own “Red line” against the use of nerve gas by Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian rebels. Trump brought his unique brand of chaos to the region, but the memories are long.
It’s another paradox that Biden’s team’s hitherto weak response to what it has called Saudi crimes beyond redemption may also push Gulf Arabs, including Saudi Arabia, to to a military alliance with Israel against Iran. It would be a big step forward from the growing diplomatic normalization of Israel-Gulf relations – seen as an achievement by the Trump administration but also supported by Biden.
Given Israel’s episodic threats to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, this could increase the risk of dragging the United States into war with Iran – just as it seeks to rekindle Obama-era detente with Tehran. . It is of course complicated.