In the past year and a half since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the American media landscape has been encased in one narrative: this is a war for the soul of the Western world. NATO has rediscovered its importance, finding its footing once again as the global backstop against tyranny and as the world’s greatest defender of democracy.
Meanwhile, behind closed doors, that most supreme of NATO member states, the United States, is seeking to broker a peace deal between two countries that have not been at war for almost fifty years (Israel and Saudi Arabia), a deal that reports indicate may involve the United States signing a pact of mutual defense with the Gulf monarchy and perhaps even one with Israel as well. The United States would thus be obligated to militarily defend a state where democratic institutions do not exist, even in name.
The deal now in motion is part of a renewed push of the Abraham Accords, a series of foreign policy achievements brokered by the Trump administration in which Israel “made peace” with Arab nations, many of whom, like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, it had never actually been at war with. Israel touted the accords as a milestone in Jewish-Islamic relations, the “Abraham” in “Abraham Accords” referring to the fact that both faiths hold the prophet Abraham in high esteem. The UAE touted the accords as a milestone in protecting the Palestinians, as the deal was ostensibly done in order to stave off Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned annexation of the Jordan Valley of Palestine’s West Bank.
In reality, the accords were less peace deals than just straightforward trades. In some cases, they were ransoms: unelected Arab leaders would recognize Israel, a state they no longer had any ideological stake in opposing, in return for a significant diplomatic concession. Morocco would enter the accords in return for the United States recognizing their occupation of Western Sahara. Sudan would sign their name to the deal in return for the United States removing them from the state sponsors of terrorism list. Saudi Arabia, the geopolitical kingmaker of the Gulf Arab states, is gunning for the biggest payout of them all.
Already announced is Saudi Arabia’s part in a massive trade corridor initiative, wherein new shipping, internet, and railway lines would pass from the European Union to India through both Israel and the Gulf kingdom in question. The bigger piece of the puzzle is Saudi Arabia’s desire to begin what they claim would be a civilian nuclear program. A nuclear program is not necessarily evidence of a wish to build nuclear weapons, as the long-standing debate over Iran makes clear. But Saudi Arabia’s insistence on this line of argumentation for their own side received its most recent upending by the crown prince himself, who said in an interview with Fox News, “If they [Iran] get one, we have to get one.”
Western supporters of Saudi Arabia’s position cannot make their argument easily. Much of the conservative opposition to Iran’s nuclear program has been based on the notion that an undemocratic Islamist state can’t be trusted with something as potentially dangerous as nuclear energy. Nevertheless, voices have appeared in publications like the Wall Street Journal insisting that Saudi Arabia should not be “scold[ed]” for pursuing nuclear energy and that the “risks can be managed.” (Not coincidentally, these voices have come from think tanks flush with nearly a million dollars from Saudi government-aligned organizations.)
The argument for a defense pact with Saudi Arabia is now being placed squarely within the renewed disdain for détente with Iran by Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic corps recently completed a historic rapprochement with Iran, which saw its embassy in Tehran reopened, new ambassadors appointed, and previously unthinkable talks with the Houthis initiated. This past week, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister was at the United Nations courting Iranian diplomats and insisting on the importance of an independent Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital. But bin Salman’s agenda has overruled any token offerings previously made to the Palestinians and Iranians.
MBS’s own promises to Palestine in regards to this deal with Israel have been vague, only voicing his desire to “ease the life” of Palestinians. The Saudi crown prince, who said in 2017 that his country “will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia,” has again reverted to such language that would not be out of place during the height of the Persian Gulf crisis a few years ago. This open appetite for brinkmanship would be deeply concerning at any time. When a defense pact with America is being discussed, even more so.
Why Saudi Arabia would seek ironclad protection from the United States is not unfathomable. The Houthis, backed by Iran, have turned the Gulf intervention in Yemen into a quagmire, bringing ballistic missile attacks to places as important as Riyadh and as far away as Abu Dhabi. Iran’s military forces, in the event of conflict, could also threaten critical Gulf desalination plants that supply the country’s water, not to mention the oil infrastructure that virtually powers the world. But a defense pact does not ensure the future that MBS envisions where Iran is indefinitely kept at bay and a benevolent Pax Saudica reigns. A permanent enshrinement of cold war with Iran, one now given even greater stakes, is far more likely to increase the chance of war than extinguish it.
One does not have to look far for cases in which defense treaties have helped instigate conflict, pushing national leaders to take bait they might not have otherwise taken. Already, years of sanctions and threats of war have spurred discussions of nuclear weapon production within Iran that were previously taboo. While even conservative voices are quick to shut down suggestions of weaponization, there is no guarantee that the next supreme leader, whoever that might be, won’t have different ideas. And while the United States may not desire war with Iran now under President Biden, there is no guarantee that the next president, whoever that might be, will continue such policies.