How Does Iran’s Attack on Israel Impact the Fate of Saudi Normalization?

If Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, needed a display of just how valuable it can be to have a defense guarantee from the United States, he got one on Saturday night. Iran – the kingdom’s most dangerous enemy – launched perhaps the largest missile and drone salvo in history at Israel, and US military support played a huge role in neutralizing it nearly completely.

MBS now has it within his power to conclude a historic defense treaty with the United States. How badly does he want it? The only way he can get one is if he agrees at the same time to make a historic peace deal with Israel – a decision made harder by the Gaza war, which has inflamed anti-Israel passions across the wider Arab world.

The US political clock is not ticking in MBS’s favor. A treaty requires bipartisan approval from two-thirds of the Senate. That’s an extremely tall order in Washington’s highly polarized environment, especially in an election year.

On America’s side, Biden would require bipartisan support 

Even if President Joe Biden could rally Senate Democrats in favor, he would still need significant Republican support. The closer we get to election day, the less inclined Republicans will be to hand Biden a major victory – especially if their presidential candidate, Donald Trump, opposes it.

To stand any chance of passage, a treaty probably needs to be presented before campaign season swings into high gear with July’s Republican convention. That means MBS has, at most, a two-to-three-month window to decide whether to roll the dice with Israel.

Before October 7, he seemed on the cusp of doing just that. Weeks prior to Hamas’s massacre, he declared publicly that “every day we get closer” to peace. In recent discussions US, Saudi, and Israeli negotiators all agreed on two things: With the exception of some technical details, a historic agreement was ready to go; Iran knew it; and October 7 was part of a broader strategy to derail the peace train by any means necessary.

Unfortunately, it worked. Normalization was not only put on hold, but the Saudis began demanding new concessions from Israel on the Palestinian issue. Before October 7, MBS said he hoped an agreement with Israel would help “ease the life of Palestinians.” After October 7, the bar was set much higher with the Saudis conditioning normalization on “irreversible steps” toward a Palestinian state.

It’s not hard to fathom why. MBS was spooked. His people are furious over the suffering of innocent Gazans. He’s said privately that he fears Iran will brand him a “traitor” to the Palestinian cause, undermining the kingdom’s legitimacy as the leader of the Islamic world.

Though understandable, it would be a pity if MBS succumbs to Iran’s game plan. In conversations with foreign visitors before October 7, he was adamant: Saudi Arabia’s ability to pursue its national interests with the United States and Israel must no longer be held hostage to a Palestinian leadership that he knew to be corrupt and incapable of making the difficult compromises necessary for achieving a two-state solution.

Yet, by raising his price on a Palestinian state, MBS has done the opposite. He’s strengthened the Palestinian veto over his foreign policy. He’s making it harder to take steps that promise historic benefits for Saudi national security.

That’s no overstatement. MBS now has within his grasp an opportunity to secure a set of commitments from Washington that no previous Saudi ruler could have imagined, even in his wildest dreams. First, a written guarantee to help defend the kingdom should it come under external attack – the first such bilateral defense treaty negotiated by Washington since the US-Japan pact of 1960.  Second, an American commitment to help develop Saudi Arabia’s civilian nuclear industry, including the risky decision to build a US-owned and operated facility for enriching uranium on Saudi soil – a necessary step for producing reactor fuel, but also a potential pathway to nuclear weapons. Third, greater and faster access to both highly advanced US armaments and cutting-edge technologies, including revolutionary AI capabilities.

Incredibly, Biden entered office threatening to turn the kingdom into a pariah for MBS’s sins. Now, MBS has Biden on the verge of agreements that will deepen the US-Saudi alliance in ways previously unthinkable. The package would cement MBS’s stature as the greatest Saudi leader since his grandfather, Abdul Aziz, the kingdom’s legendary founder who forged the US partnership in 1945.

Is MBS really prepared to risk all that on the altar of a Palestinian conflict that has only been made more intractable, not less, by October 7? If he’s really waiting for Israel to reward the Palestinians with a state of their own that could become a launching pad for further October 7 attacks, he’ll be waiting a long time.

For sure, the narrow window still open to get something big done before the US elections will slam shut – with no assurance of when it might open again, especially if Biden loses and there’s no Democratic president to whip his party (the majority of whom are no fans of the kingdom) behind a deal.

This past weekend’s events have provided MBS with a powerful reminder of all he has to gain from moving forward boldly. A US-Saudi defense treaty and nuclear partnership, together with Israeli-Saudi normalization, would trigger a strategic revolution in the Middle East and consolidate the kingdom’s security and well-being for decades to come. Few more powerful blows could be dealt to the Iranian axis. Whether it gets delivered will largely depend on the decisions that MBS makes in the next few weeks.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.