The announcement that China brokered a deal for Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume diplomatic relations is being misinterpreted as an indication of China’s growing influence in the region, America’s decline and a collapse of the Gulf alliance against the mullahs. However, the restoration of ties with Iran does not indicate rapprochement with Iran, just as U.S. relations with China and Russia do not make us friends. And while China may derive some propaganda value from its involvement, the Saudis are using them, as they have in the past, as leverage to get what they want from the United States.
Not coincidentally, evidence of the game the Saudis are playing came at nearly the same time when The Wall Street Journal reported that the Saudis wanted additional security guarantees and help with its nuclear program in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia also just released a dual U.S.-Saudi citizen who had been sentenced in 2021 to 19 years in prison for tweets critical of the government’s policies.
To understand Saudi chess, it is essential to recognize that their prime directive is to ensure that the royal family’s heads stay attached to their shoulders. The House of Saud knows only the United States can and will do that, as it has for more than eight decades. The Biden administration’s desire to pivot to Asia and its contemptuous attitude towards the country, however, has the Saudis scared and motivated them to make a move.
It’s not the first time.
In 1987, the Saudis used their Chinese pawn after Congress blocked the sale of missiles to the kingdom. Months later, the U.S. learned the Saudis secretly bought medium-range Silkworm ballistic missiles from China. President Ronald Reagan got the message, and U.S. arms sales soon resumed.
Why would the Saudis be so intent on a nuclear deal with the United States if they’ve now made peace with their greatest enemy?
The answer is that there can be no reconciliation between Saudi Sunnis and Shi’ite Iran. The Saudis are afraid that Iran is within days of having enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon. This is why the Israelis need not fear the diplomatic agreement. The Saudis have no faith in the United States to stop Iran from building a bomb and will continue to cooperate with the Israelis in the expectation that they will eliminate the threat.
Meanwhile, the Saudis have been seeking their own technology, and the Chinese have helped.
In 2008, the United States and Saudi Arabia agreed to establish a nuclear cooperation relationship, and Saudi Arabia joined the Proliferation Security Initiative.
A year later, King Abdullah told U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross: “If [Iran] gets nuclear weapons, we will get nuclear weapons.”
In 2012, Abdullah signed an agreement with China to cooperate in developing atomic energy for peaceful purposes. Deals with Pakistan, North Korea and Russia followed. In 2020, the Journal reported that the kingdom had constructed an undisclosed facility with Chinese help for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, which sent a message to Washington that the Saudis could decide to develop a weapon if the Iranian threat was not neutralized.
Now the Saudis are using their flirtation with China to scare Biden that America is losing influence in the region and give the president’s political opponents ammunition to use against him. Simultaneously, they’re holding out the carrot of normalizing relations with Israel under the president’s auspices to give Biden a much-needed foreign-policy victory. While the Saudis have been uncooperative on oil production, they also just gave Biden an economic win when they agreed to purchase up to 121 Boeing Dreamliner aircraft.
According to the Journal, Riyadh wants U.S. support to enrich uranium and develop its own fuel production system. The Saudis know the United States will not help them build a bomb, but they apparently believe that they can follow the Iranian precedent of converting a civilian program to a military one. In the past, American strings attached to nuclear deals led the Saudis to other countries, including China.
Like Iran, the Saudis do not need civilian nuclear power. Thanks to former President Barack Obama’s catastrophic nuclear deal with Iran and the failure of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, they want a bomb as a deterrent.
The Saudis also want a stronger guarantee that the United States will defend them. This, the Journal reported, could be partly accomplished by making the kingdom a non-NATO ally like Israel. Since the U.S. security umbrella already protects the Saudis, this is an easy call, though it will anger progressives determined to shun the kingdom.
The Saudi sacrifice of the Chinese pawn does not have to checkmate the United States. Biden can still be the winner by simply reinforcing America’s longstanding commitment to the kingdom and giving the Saudis the nuclear help they’ll otherwise buy elsewhere. The reward will be a game-changing step towards Middle East peace with the normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby,” “Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”