Trump Rewards Saudi Arabia with Nuclear Secrets
After the Saudis murdered dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their consulate in Istanbul, the Trump Administration swung into action—and approved permits to transfer US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. We learned this from Senator Tim Kaine on June 4. Senator Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate, represents Virginia where Khasshogi was a permanent resident.
We already knew part of the story. In March, the public learned that Trump’s Secretary of Energy Rick Perry had approved seven permits allowing American companies to transfer nuclear tech to the Saudis. We did not, however, know when the permits were issued.
We do now. Senator Kaine, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had badgered the Administration for two months to disclose the dates when the permits were granted. Senator Kaine’s inquiries went unanswered until the Committee’s Chairman, Republican James Risch of Idaho, interceded. This led to Secretary Perry’s disclosing that he approved two of the seven permits on October 18, 2018—sixteen days after Khashoggi was murdered—and on February 18, 2019.
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Even before President Donald Trump entered office, future members of the Trump Administration, most prominently General Michael Flynn, who would briefly serve as President Trump’s first National Security Adviser, were planning—“conspiring” might be a better word—to sell two American nuclear reactors to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Trump Administration’s apparent willingness to circumvent Congress is described in an interim report released in February by the Democratic majority of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The report also raises concerns about possible conflicts of interest among past and present members of the Trump Administration who stand to benefit handsomely if the sale goes through.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is compromised because of his close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. In addition, Kushner was bailed out of a disastrous real estate deal by the investment firm Brookfield Asset Management which now owns Westinghouse Electric, one of the promoters of the Saudi nuclear deal. In a June 4 statement, Senator Kaine said: “I have serious questions about whether any decisions on nuclear transfers were made based on the Trump family’s financial ties rather than the interests of the American people.” Was Senator Kaine referring to the millions of dollars the Saudis have spent on stays at Trump hotels? (Tip to Iran: if you want to avoid a US invasion, invite Trump to build a hotel in Tehran.)
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The Trump Administration and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been attempting to hammer out a nuclear cooperation agreement as mandated by section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (hence a “123 agreement”). According to the Congressional Research Service, a 123 agreement must satisfy “nine nonproliferation criteria.” Along with provisions on storage of fissionable materials and prohibitions against retransfer of materials or classified data, the receiving state promises not to build nuclear weapons. A 123 agreement must be in place before US material or technology can be transferred from the US overseas (with a loophole discussed below).
The deal has stalled over Saudi insistence on the right to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium: two paths to producing nuclear bomb fuel. The Saudis maintain that the reactors will be used solely to meet the energy needs of the kingdom’s rapidly growing population, thus freeing up more Saudi oil for export. However, fears of a Saudi bomb were stoked when Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, said during an interview with 60 Minutes that “without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, [Saudi Arabia] will follow suit as soon as possible.” London Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall points out that “Since Saudi and Israeli officials maintain that Iran is already doing exactly that, the implication is clear.” We may be in the first stage of a nuclear arms race in the most dangerous region on Earth.
Even if the Trump Administration and the Saudis manage to conclude a 123 agreement, there is a real possibility that the agreement may not make it through Congress. Since Khashoggi’s murder, even members of the president’s own party have shown increasing displeasure with the Saudis. In October of last year, Senator Marco Rubio and four other Republican senators wrote to President Trump to urge him to suspend nuclear talks with the kingdom. On March 15, Senator Rubio and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the proposed tech transfer. Congress has introduced legislation denying enrichment and reprocessing capability to the Saudis and reasserting Congress’ prerogative to approve any transfer of nuclear tech. And, in an historic move, Congress passed a resolution which would have invoked the Vietnam-era War Powers Resolution and put an end to US assistance to the Saudis in their genocidal war on Yemen. Congress was unable to override Trump’s subsequent veto. Most recently, Trump has declared an emergency in an attempt to push through $8 billion of arms sales over Congress’ opposition.
Sneaking Nukes Through the Back Door
This brings us back to the seven permits issued by the Department of Energy. The permits were issued under Title 10, Part 810 of the Code of Federal Regulations (thus, “Part 810 Authorizations”). Unlike 123 agreements, Part 810 Authorizations do not require Congressional approval. Part 810 authorizations often precede a 123 agreement and allow limited, routine transfers of non-classified information such as reactor designs. Is the Trump Administration trying to exploit a loophole in the law in order to transfer nuclear tech which needs Congressional approval? At this point, we don’t know. We won’t until we know the 810 authorizations’ contents or what companies they were issued to. The Administration says it is keeping the information confidential because the 810 authorizations contain proprietary technology.
Seeking answers, Senator Rubio and Senator Menendez wrote to Secretary of Energy Rick Perry on April 2 to ask what tech is covered under the permits and who the permits were issued to. The answers to these questions can help determine whether the Administration is acting within the law.
The Saudis cannot be trusted with nuclear power. Henry Sokolski, Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, an NGO in Washington DC, calls nuclear reactors “nuclear bomb starter kits.” We can best honor Jamal Khashoggi’s memory by making sure that his murderers never get technology that could lead to a nuclear weapon.
1. Echoing Saudi propaganda, Kushner has smeared Khashoggi as a “terrorist masquerading as a journalist,” according to a new book by Michael Wolff, author of the bestselling Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (2018). ↑
2. Congressional Research Service, Nuclear Cooperation with Other Countries: A Primer (Updated April 15, 2019), page 2. ↑
3. The “who” most likely includes the companies President Trump met with behind closed doors on February 12, 2019, among them Exelon Corp., Westinghouse, and General Electric. Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Ari Natter, and Jennifer Jacobs, CEOs Ask Trump to Help Them Sell Nuclear Power Plants Abroad, Bloomberg.com, Feb. 12, 2019. The gathering was orchestrated by IP3 International, a shadowy collective of retired US admirals and generals which has been trying to broker the US-Saudi nuclear deal. IP3 figures prominently in the February 19 House Interim Report. ↑