U.S. President Joe Biden called Saudi Arabian King Salman on Thursday as his administration is set to release a congressionally mandated declassified version of an intelligence report that is expected to find the king’s son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
According to the White House, during the call, Biden and Salman “discussed regional security, including the renewed diplomatic efforts led by the United Nations and the United States to end the war in Yemen, and the U.S. commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups.”
The White House readout of the call noted the recent release of several Saudi American activists and Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul from custody and affirmed the importance the U.S. places on universal human rights and the rule of law. It did not mention the report on Khashoggi, scheduled to be released after the call.
The White House did not provide an explanation as to why the readout did not mention Khashoggi, who was a legal U.S. resident with U.S. citizen children.
Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, was lured to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, and was killed by operatives linked to the crown prince. His body was dismembered, and his remains have never been found. Riyadh eventually admitted that Khashoggi was mistakenly killed in what it called a rogue operation but denied the crown prince’s involvement.
The role of the crown prince, often referred to by his initials MBS, in Khashoggi’s death has been the subject of media reports since late 2018. The Trump administration rejected demands by lawmakers to release a declassified version of the report as the White House prioritized arms sales to the kingdom and alliance with Riyadh amid rising U.S. tensions with its regional rival, Iran.
Reassessing U.S.-Saudi relations to include more emphasis on human rights is a campaign pledge for Biden. Since taking office, he has ended sales of offensive arms that Riyadh could use in Yemen and named veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking as the special envoy to lead American diplomacy efforts “to end the war in Yemen, a war which has created humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.”
“President Biden wants to be clear that the old way is not the new way,” said Gerald Feierstein, senior vice president at the Middle East Institute.
The administration is also seeking to distance itself from MBS, the country’s 35-year-old de facto ruler. White House press secretary Jen Psaki has often stressed that Biden would communicate only with his counterpart, the Saudi king.
Balancing Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen
As the U.S. recalibrates relations with the Saudis, the White House is attempting to bring Riyadh’s regional rival Iran back into compliance on the nuclear deal that fell apart after Trump withdrew from it in 2018.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was reached by Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain and the United States) under the Obama administration in 2015.
Ending the sales of offensive arms to Riyadh is part of the larger geopolitical calculation that involves balancing these two regional powers, said Feierstein, who was also the ambassador to Yemen under President Barack Obama.
“The idea is that if there is a political resolution of the conflict in Yemen, that could, in fact, reduce the tension in the region and allow the parties to be more forward-leaning,” Feierstein said.
Compared with Lebanon and Iraq, Yemen is a lesser national security priority for Iran. Reducing tensions there could be a confidence-building measure to incentivize Tehran back to nuclear talks and eventually address other concerns, including its ballistic missile program and support for militias in Iraq and Lebanon. In effect, Feierstein said, Biden’s realignment with the Saudis on Yemen could help further U.S. interests in the region.
But other analysts say that recalibrating relations with Riyadh while reengaging with Tehran could backfire. It could lead to the Saudis feeling abandoned by the U.S. and push them toward actions against America’s interest, said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a pro-Israel think tank known to speak against the nuclear deal with Iran.
“We are going to risk having Saudi Arabia potentially pursuing their own nuclear weapons capability and looking to other partners for security assurances,” Bowman said.
But Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, whose research focuses on the nuclear and missile programs in Iran, said the best approach to prevent a regional nuclear arms race is by restoring compliance to the JCPOA nuclear agreement.
“Dealing with Iran’s nuclear program will prevent Saudi Arabia from feeling like it needs to match Iran’s capabilities,” she said.
Davenport pointed out that during the past several years, the Saudis have been laying the groundwork to develop a nuclear weapon, should they choose to.
“From the perspective of U.S. security and regional stability, restoring a nuclear deal is an important first step to ensure that there’s no crisis with Iran that cascades into a regional nuclear crisis,” Davenport said.