The Biden administration’s circulation of the U.S. finding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the 2018 killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi represents the latest in an ongoing effort to dial back U.S.-Saudi relations from the closeness of the Trump era.
While U.S. officials are so far stopping short of directly sanctioning the crown prince, the effort to cast a fresh spotlight on the Khashoggi killing fits within a wider attempt by President Biden to create distance with Riyadh as his administration pursues detente with Saudi archrival Iran.
It remains to be seen how the effort will impact U.S.-Iranian tensions, which have risen since American forces carried out strikes against Tehran-backed militants in Syria last week. Iranian officials on Sunday spurned the idea of holding informal talks with Washington.
With the Iran dynamic hanging in the backdrop, White House press secretary Jen Psaki made no secret over the weekend that the administration seeks to “recalibrate” the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Doing so would essentially fulfill a Biden campaign promise to reevaluate ties with Riyadh after criticism that President Trump turned a blind eye on human rights abuses by the major oil-producing Arab ally.
Analysts say the Biden recalibration began in early February with the administration’s halt of U.S. support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, where a Saudi-Iranian proxy war has been playing out over the past half-decade.
The administration made its latest move Friday. The Treasury Department announced sanctions against a former deputy Saudi intelligence chief, Ahmed al-Asiri, and the Saudi Royal Guard’s Rapid Intervention Force, or RIF, over their suspected involvement in killing Khashoggi.
The 59-year-old who wrote Washington Post opinion columns that were critical of Crown Prince Mohammed disappeared in October 2018 after he was lured to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. U.S. officials say Saudi operatives killed him and dismembered his body. The remains have never been found.
The incident shook U.S.-Saudi relations at the time. Democrats and some Republicans expressed outrage that the Trump administration failed to hold the Saudis accountable for brazenly assassinating a political critic who wrote for an American newspaper.
Some lawmakers are now calling on Mr. Biden to go further by leveling sanctions directly against Crown Prince Mohammed.
“The Crown Prince has blood on his hands. The blood of an American resident and journalist,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, tweeted Friday. “We must have accountability.
“The Biden Administration should ensure that repercussions for the brutal murder of Khashoggi go beyond those who carried it out, to the one who ordered it,” Mr. Schiff wrote.
Mr. Biden appeared to respond to the pressure from members of his own party Saturday by telling reporters at the White House that his administration would make “an announcement on Monday as to what we are going to be doing with Saudi Arabia generally.”
Others in the administration have given little clear indication of what’s coming.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Friday that U.S. officials had “taken action pursuant to what we’re calling the Khashoggi Ban to impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”
With regard to the crown prince specifically, Mr. Blinken said, “The relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual.”
Ms. Psaki suggested Sunday that Mr. Biden’s advisers were still weighing what actions to take and defended the decision not to sanction the crown prince directly. She told CNN that there are “more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again and to also be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement.”
She told Fox News that “behind the scenes there are a range of diplomatic conversations that make absolutely clear to the Saudis and to others around the world that this is going to be a different kind of relationship.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Friday released an intelligence report declassifying aspects of an inquiry by U.S. spy analysts into the Khashoggi affair. The four-page report essentially reiterated the core finding of a 2018 CIA assessment that concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed ordered the killing of Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabia bluntly shot back in a statement carried Friday by the official news service in Riyadh that “the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the kingdom’s leadership, and notes that the report contained inaccurate information and conclusions.”
The statement called Mr. Khashoggi’s killing an “abhorrent crime” and asserted that it was “committed by a group of individuals” who “transgressed all pertinent regulations and authorities of the agencies where they were employed.”
The Iran factor
It’s not clear how the latest developments may impact tense regional dynamics among Saudi Arabia, the United States and Iran at a delicate moment when the Biden administration is seeking to restart diplomatic talks toward rejuvenating the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord.
Mr. Trump pulled the United States out of the accord in 2018. The move was enthusiastically praised by Saudi Arabia, a predominantly Sunni Muslim monarchy that has long been at odds with the Shiite Muslim theocracy ruling Iran.
The accord, which was signed by the U.S., Iran, China, Russia and the European Union, eased international sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits to and inspections of Iranian nuclear activities. The Trump administration unilaterally restored U.S. sanctions on Tehran upon pulling Washington out of the accord.
Although the Biden administration has signaled a desire to repair the damaged accord, tensions have soared between Washington and Tehran in recent days.
On Thursday, the White House ordered U.S. airstrikes against Iran-backed militias operating in Syria in apparent retaliation for recent rocket attacks against American personnel stationed in nearby Iraq. Many believe Iran-backed militants there carried out the attacks.
Iran, meanwhile, has brushed off the Biden administration’s diplomatic overtures and threatened to ramp up its nuclear enrichment operations to almost weapons-grade levels.
Reuters reported Sunday that Tehran had ruled out an informal meeting with the United States and European powers to discuss ways to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal and insisted that Washington must first lift all its unilateral sanctions.
• David R. Sands and Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.