In response to last week’s report, the State Department put 76 Saudi nationals on a no-travel list, and the Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on Saudi officials involved in Khashoggi’s assassination. But bin Salman was not among them.
Sanctioning the crown prince, known as MBS, would have been “too complicated,” according to two administration officials, and could have jeopardized US military interests in the kingdom. As a result, the administration did not even ask the State Department to come up with options on how to target MBSs, a State Department official said. Another current administration official said sanctioning the crown prince was never a “viable option” as it could turn important initiatives in the region upside down.
A central reason: MBS has almost complete control over all the levers of power in the country. He is not only the crown prince, he is deputy prime minister, defense minister, president of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, president of the Council for Political and Security Affairs and head of Aramco, the state oil and natural company. gas company.
MBS’s father, King Salman, who is rumored to be unwell, disrupted the Saudi government for decades after he came to power in 2015. Instead of different princes controlling different branches of government, Salman created a system in the one that a single individual has all the powers. That individual is now MBS.
In the words of a former administration official, US intelligence never found “irrefutable evidence” directly linking MBS to Khashoggi’s murder.
“It is not enough to sanction someone that high just on the basis that they make all the important decisions,” said this official, adding that the intelligence report had too little wording to suggest that any specific evidence was discovered linking directly to MBS. with the decision.
By refraining from imposing sanctions directly against MBS, administration sources say they are making a pragmatic gamble to preserve diplomatic ties with the Saudis, a move they hope will allow them to gain some influence over the Middle East ally.
‘Recalibrate’ not ‘break’
The White House has stood firm in recent days, defending its decision to save MBS, although it sometimes struggles to explain its rationale.
Also on Monday, Psaki said the administration reserves the right to do more with Saudi Arabia, but that was after weathering a weekend of strong criticism. During Monday’s press conference, when asked how the president is reacting to attacks that were too easy on the Saudis, Psaki replied: “I don’t think anyone will run for the presidency or get elected if they have thin skin. action that he takes on an issue like global diplomacy or an issue where there is a complicated relationship; I think he hoped there might be some criticism. ”
Psaki added that as president, Biden’s role “is to act in the national interest of the United States. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
At the State Department on Monday, spokesman Ned Price suggested that the Biden administration is seeking to “recalibrate,” not “break,” the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
“We are working to put the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia on the right footing,” Price told reporters on Monday.
All of that has done little to appease angry lawmakers, including many Democrats, who have criticized Biden’s team’s decision not to sanction MBS. Despite the harsh words of the Biden administration, the full recalibration they promised “did not happen,” said a Democratic aide on Capitol Hill.
The Biden administration also failed to keep Congress informed in the run-up to the actions they planned to take, two congressional aides said. This left many on Capitol Hill scrambling on Friday morning to try to figure out what was coming.
The sanctions that came, against a senior Saudi intelligence official and the crown prince’s protective force, were “necessary but not sufficient,” a Democratic aide told CNN.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers immediately announced last week that more needed to be done to hold MBS accountable, and some are crafting legislation.
While Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden praised the administration for its actions, in a statement he made clear that “there should be personal consequences for MBS, it should face sanctions, including financial, travel and legal, and the government Saudi should suffer. ” serious consequences as long as he remains in government. ”
In a statement to CNN, New York Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that he is “currently reviewing possible additional steps to hold everyone involved, including those in the Forced repatriation, intimidation, or murder of dissidents by the Saudi government, or any other government, must not go unchecked. “
Representative Ilhan Omar, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a Minnesota Democrat, also notified advocates through her office of her intention to introduce sanctions legislation.
“I don’t think it goes far enough, although you have to give it credit because it has actually increased penalties and increased travel bans on people who were directly responsible,” Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman told host George Stephanopoulos at “This week” from ABC.
“I don’t think anybody thinks that the crown prince was not responsible, that is, that he knew it and approved of it,” Portman added. “So I think there should be something additional that focuses on him.”
Wise to wait
Not everyone thinks the Biden administration took the wrong approach. Varsha Koduvayur, a senior policy analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a tough policy institute in Washington, said the administration was “wise to wait” with sanctions on the crown prince.
The use of Saudi Arabian military bases for regional operations remains a top U.S. priority, which an administration official told CNN was one of the factors driving last week’s decision not to include MBS in the sanctions list.
Brett McGurk, who currently heads the Middle East leadership at the National Security Council, has previously turned to Saudi Arabia for funds to support the stabilization of Syria and other regional interests in his roles under the previous two administrations.
“There is no doubt that he and other top advisers consider Saudi Arabia too important to justify” the MBS sanctions, the former administration official said.
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.