Donald Trump rushing to sell Saudi Arabia nuclear technology

Experts worry tech transfer will allow Saudi Arabia to produce nuclear weapons, contributing to Middle East arms race.

Washington, DC – The administration of President Donald Trump is bypassing the United States Congress to advance the sale of US nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia, despite concerns it would violate US law guarding against technology transfers, according to a new report by a congressional committee.

Security analysts worry the technology would allow Saudi Arabia to produce nuclear weapons in the future, potentially contributing to an arms race in the Middle East.

US legislators are concerned about the stability of Saudi leadership under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) because of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen.

Multiple unnamed “whistleblowers” have come forward to warn about White House attempts to speed the transfer of highly sensitive US nuclear technology to build new nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia, according to the staff report by the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

“The whistleblowers who came forward have warned of conflicts of interest among top White House advisers that could implicate federal criminal statutes,” Representative Elijah Cummings, the Democrat chairman of the committee, said in a letter to the White House on Tuesday.

The committee is investigating efforts by US nuclear power companies to win Trump administration approval to build nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.

IP3 consortium

A key target of the Oversight Committee’s inquiry is an effort by IP3 International, a consortium of nuclear power producers that began lobbying during the Trump transition in late 2016 and early 2017 to win presidential approval to develop nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia.

Most recently, Trump met on February 12 with the IP3 International representatives and the chief executive officers of major US nuclear energy producers to discuss developing nuclear power plants in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, a meeting that was initiated by IP3’s founder, retired Army General Jack Keane, according to the committee report which cited Bloomberg News.

The IP3 proposal has been repeatedly promoted to White House officials by Thomas Barrack, according to the report. Barrack is a personal friend of the president who raised $107m for Trump’s Inaugural Committee. US prosecutors in New York are investigating the inaugural committee activities.

‘Chaos, dysfunction, backbiting’

The committee released documents describing the IP3 proposal. Cummings’ letter further demands documents and emails from the White House related to its discussions of potential nuclear power development in the Middle East.

Whistleblowers “warned about a working environment inside the White House marked by chaos, dysfunction and backbiting. And they have warned about political appointees ignoring directives from top ethics advisors at the White House who repeatedly and unsuccessfully ordered senior Trump administration officials to halt their efforts”, Cummings wrote in the letter.

Meanwhile, a US Senate proposal offered by Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat – with support from Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican – seeks to block Saudi Arabia from developing bomb material by prohibiting it from enriching uranium or reusing plutonium from any future power plants.

‘Trump picking favourites’

In addition, the committee report focuses on former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a retired army general who in 2016 worked as an adviser to a subsidiary of IP3 while he was also serving in Trump’s presidential campaign.

Flynn was an advocate for IP3’s plan to sell nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia in the transition period after Trump won the US election and when he joined the White House as national security adviser, according to the unnamed whistleblowers cited in the report.

As Trump took office in early 2017, Bud McFarlane, former President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser and now an adviser to IP3, emailed Flynn draft documents for the president’s signature outlining a new “Marshall Plan for the Middle East” centred on development of dozens of civilian nuclear power plants by US companies.

Under US law, any deal to sell Saudi Arabia nuclear energy technology would require a prior agreement, approved by Congress, between the US and Saudi Arabia to place fissionable material under the monitoring and control of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency.

Separately, on January 1, 2017, McFarlane, the founders of IP3 and the CEOs of six companies – Exelon Corp., Toshiba Energy, Bechtel Corp., Centrus, GE Power and Siemens USA – had sent a letter to MBS promoting the proposal, according to the report.

“This is more about Trump wanting to do favours for the Saudis for financial reasons and to buttress the Saudis against Iran in the region. But the Saudis do not need nuclear power, and if they get it, will only push Iran to restart its nuclear programme,” Tom Collina, policy director at the Ploughshares Fund, a non-proliferation advocacy group based in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.

“This is Trump picking favourites in the Middle East which will not end well,” Collina said.

In 2015, Iran reached agreement with five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the European Union not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. Iran is receiving technical assistance from Russia in developing civilian nuclear power.

In May 2018, Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear agreement, which had been negotiated by the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and re-imposed oil and financial sanctions.

Iran has continued to comply with the agreement. The EU, Russia and China have refused to go along with US efforts to reimpose sanctions.

On Sunday, US Vice President Mike Pence clashed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the Iran deal in competing speeches given at the Munich Security Conference.

Pence called on European allies to join the US in withdrawing from the agreement, while, for her part, Merkel defended the Iran nuclear deal, saying it effectively limits Tehran’s ability to produce bomb material.

Source: Al Jazeera