By Stephen Bryen
(Originally published in Asia Times)
The Biden administration has pulled three Patriot missile batteries out of Saudi Arabia and also is ending the permanent stationing of a US Aircraft carrier in the region. According to the administration the Patriots and the aircraft carrier are needed elsewhere.
These steps surely expose Saudi Arabia to great danger and risk, both from the Houthis in Yemen and their principal adversary, Iran.
While the Biden administration says it needs these systems “elsewhere,” the administration has not defined where they really are needed and how urgently.
The Biden administration steps come at a time when China has signed a long term strategic and economic deal with Iran. This deal which involves oil and gtrade directly undermines the remaining US sanctions on Iran and signals American allies in Europe that they better hurry back into Iran if they want to get any piece of Iranian trade. Nor has the Biden administration complained about the China-Iran deal –in fact the only comment from the administration was to note that China and the US share the same goal of opposing Iran having nuclear weapons.
Many foreign policy experts are scratching their heads as to why the Biden administration has chosen to ostracize Saudi Arabia and to undermine a long term strategic, military and economic relationship with the Kingdom and with the pro-American Gulf states.
One explanation is that the administration is going all out to persuade Iran that the United States can be a good future partner. Iran, in this perspective, is the only “real” power in the Persian Gulf. In this context the only choices are either to fight Iran or try and work deals with the Mullah’s regime. The other countries, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Qatar are oil suppliers, but are weak militarily. Iran, by contrast, not only is strong militarily but directly and through its proxies is close to taking over Iraq, controls Lebanon through Hezbollah, and is a key player in Syria. The administration has no ability to change these “facts,” so it is trying something different.
Another explanation is more “local” in the sense that the Saudi Kingdom is, in the administration’s view, not progressive and can’t provide an alternative leadership in the region. Moreover, the abuses of human rights and the Kashoggi murder, loom large in Biden’s calculations. The President has made no secret about his feelings toward Mohammed Bin-Salman or the Saudi Kingdom.
Surprisingly, the Biden administration has not consulted about these military moves with Israel. Iran has made no secret of its desire to destroy Israel if it can. Furthermore it has armed Hezbollah and Shi’a militias in Iraq with increasingly long range precision missiles that can be aimed at Israel. Iranian Republican Guard troops are operating in Syria and have been trying to position themselves and their missiles as close to Israel as possible, leading to a number of Israeli air strikes against this growing threat.
Yet the Biden administration has done very little, other than encourage some Middle Eastern countries to stay away from the Abraham accords that have already normalized ties between the UAE and Bahrain, and the separate recognition deals with Israel that involve Morocco and Sudan. Lurking behind the Biden administration’s current approach is a desire not to “offend” Iran and not to support Netanyahu, who is regarded as a strong Trump ally.
Meanwhile Saudi Arabia faces tough times unless it can find some way to replace its air defense shield. One option for the Kingdom is to buy the S-400 from Russia. The Saudis tried this a few years ago but ran into stiff resistance from Washington. Washington will probably complain again if the Kingdom makes any progress with the Russians, either on the S-400 or on a number of other Russian air defense systems like the Pantsir ADS or the SA-17 BUK-M3.
Another option could be buying air defense systems from Israel where there are a number of systems that would be attractive to the kingdom. Some of them, however, such as Iron Dome and Arrow require US export licenses. But one system could prove to be extremely attractive to Saudi Arabia –Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’ Spyder SR and Spyder ER (Extended Range). The Spyder system uses an Israel PYthon-5 interceptor missile with a dual infrared seeker and an I-DERby radar interceptor for Beyond Visual Range and ER applications. PYthon and DERby are Israeli homegrown air to air missiles which have been adapted to ground to air use. The Spyder system is mobile and quick reacting and its missiles can be locked onto a target before or after launch. These missiles are particularly effective against high maneuvering targets.
For Saudi Arabia to do a deal with Israel the unofficial Saudi-Israeli relationship would need to be upgraded, probably to real diplomatic status. Making such a deal happen will be very tricky. Even though the Saudis have downplayed the importance of Al Aqsa in Jerusalem, there is still the Palestinian issue that the Saudis want to see solved somehow before moving forward with Israel. However the tempo of events and the inability of the Palestinians to work out a comprehensive deal with Israel leaves the Saudis asking for what they can’t get.
Meanwhile any semblance of broader stability in the Middle East and in the Gulf states has been significantly undermined by the recent Biden administration’s unilateral actions in the region. Others who depend on US security assurances and relationships will take note of the lack of American reliability, or at least its willingness to throw off long term allies and friends. This will have broader geopolitical ramifications, as allies and friends of the US will look to do deals with potential adversaries to protect themselves.