Congress must curb Trump's nuclear Saudi Arabia

Congress must curb Trump's nuclear Saudi Arabia
Comment: Allowing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to build a domestic nuclear energy programme unfettered by reprocessing restrictions is a terrible idea, writes Marcus Montgomery.
6 min read
01 Mar, 2018
There's little indication Trump is willing to pressure the Saudis in any capacity [AFP]
Just as President Donald Trump is leaning on Congress to "fix" the Iran nuclear deal to counter the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, lawmakers may also be tasked with preventing the president from indirectly promoting the proliferation of weapons by another Gulf state. 

Saudi Arabia is angling to start its own nuclear energy programme and is listening to pitches from technology companies around the globe, including US companies.

To hear the Saudis tell it, their program would be solely operated for domestic energy consumption. But, it is quite obvious that a domestic decision with possible regional or military implications - like this - is considered with arch-rival Iran in mind.

Combine this with the facts that the Saudis are adamant that they should be allowed to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel as they see fit - both realistic necessities to some extent, but also an integral step in creating nuclear weapons - and that there are much more cost effective ways to satisfy domestic energy demands, it is necessary to be skeptical about the kingdom's true ambitions in harnessing the power of nuclear energy.

As the Saudi government begins courting these foreign businesses, the United States is expected to be a major player in any agreement. US law stipulates that the use of any US technology or materials must be accompanied by a bilateral agreement that outlines the purpose and scope of cooperation between the United States and the signatory.

This clause also extends to some other players in the nuclear industry, such as South Korea, because they incorporate US technology in their products or services, giving the United States jurisdiction over any deal.

Here is where lawmakers in Congress must step forward and mitigate the president’s worst instincts

This cooperation agreement - colloquially referred to as a "123 agreement," after the section of the 1954 law outlining US policy on atomic energy - is also subject to congressional approval. Here, Donald Trump and his administration play a critical role.

The president and some of his leading officials, primarily the secretaries of the Departments of State (Rex Tillerson) and Energy (Rick Perry), are supposed to lead the negotiations with their foreign counterparts and extract the aforementioned agreement.

Both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations were keen to extract the toughest concessions from countries seeking to cooperate with the United States to establish civilian nuclear energy programmes. In the Trump era, however, there is little expectation that traditional considerations will carry as much weight with this administration. 

Read more: US lawmaker concerned over Saudi Arabia nuclear plans

First and foremost, Mr Trump, spanning back to his days as a candidate, has shown little-to-no knowledge of the basic ideas that have long anchored the United States' nuclear non-proliferation policies or the dangers of a global nuclear arms race.

Even worse, it does not seem his time in office has enlightened him; the president is still apparently questioning the military about the utility of nuclear weapons and he has even urged the government to make new nuclear bombs.

By now, it is well established that the current US president neither knows nor cares enough about the dangers of nuclear weapons to critically examine why allowing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to build a domestic nuclear energy programme unfettered by enrichment or reprocessing restrictions is a terrible idea.

Worse though, I am not certain it would matter if he did.

Indeed, the Saudis have arguably dazzled Mr Trump the most since he claimed the Oval Office, and the relationships between wunderkinds Jared Kushner and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman only perpetuate the budding comradery the Trump administration finds in the Saudi royal family.

At this point, there is little indication that Trump and his team are willing to pressure the Saudis in any capacity, even constraining a potentially weapons-capable nuclear programme.

Further, the Saudis have found in Trump an American president that understands the language they speak most fluently: money. Donald Trump is almost singularly animated by economic considerations and this seemingly bleeds into foreign affairs and non-proliferation policy.

Indeed, months after taking office, the Saudis hosted the new president to an over-the-top reception in which they unveiled a (repackaged) arms deal potentially worth hundreds of billions.

Constructing a nuclear energy programme from the ground up is extremely expensive. Any potential deal between the Saudis and the American company in the running for the project - Westinghouse - is thought to be capable of reviving a slowing nuclear technology industry here in the United States (never mind that some observers suspect the nearly bankrupt company might only usher in a few of the projected $80 billion of the project to the US economy).

The Saudis have found in Trump an American president that understands the language they speak most fluently: money

If there is one thing we have learned about Mr Trump, it's that he revels in the opportunity to try and resurrect seemingly moribund industries. 

With President Trump in office and the fate of the Iran nuclear deal hanging in the balance, all of the personalities and circumstances are primed for a risky deal that would allow the Saudis to construct a nuclear energy programme with little commitments to refrain from enriching uranium or reprocessing spent fuel.

Here is where lawmakers in Congress must step forward and mitigate the president’s worst instincts. 

First and foremost, it is important that lawmakers understand that the Trump administration and the Saudis have significant leverage in what could shape up to be a tricky fight.

To be sure, the Saudis can play the United States off against states such as China and Russia whose companies can offer cheaper contracts (due to state subsidies) that come with few, if any, restrictions or preconditions.

If the Trump administration is cognisant of this fact, it will have the leverage to play hardball with lawmakers, guaranteeing them that scuttling any potential deal would cede yet more leadership in the region to less trustworthy world powers, and that members of Congress would be to blame.

But, Congress should not succumb to the notion that this is a binary choice between the "gold standard" of deals, like that signed with the United Arab Emirates, and no deal at all.

Mr Trump has shown little-to-no knowledge of the dangers of a global nuclear arms race

Though lawmakers are rightly concerned about the Trump administration's posture, they should be careful not to scuttle any deal entirely, as it would guarantee that the Saudis explore cooperating with China or Russia.

But, they must moderate any potential agreement.

The best possible outcome might, and should, be a JCPOA-style deal that trades enrichment rights for transparency and international oversight.

Additionally, the lawmakers could sweeten the deal with a "sunset" period after which enrichment restrictions would expire. This would ultimately just push the issue down the road, but it could buy time, during which the fate of the JCPOA and Iran's nuclear program could become clearer.

There is no doubt that the United States should have a seat at the table for any discussion regarding nuclear proliferation, particularly in a region as volatile as the Middle East, but that access should not be granted in lieu of detailed and strict limits on weapons-capable nuclear activities.

For this to happen, it seems that Congress will have to intervene and mitigate the risks stemming from the worst instincts of the current administration.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.