By Dylan Ramos
Author’s note: This piece was written before the recent Gulf of Oman incident now being used to push for an unwanted war with Iran, and before Iran announced its imminent plans to surpass uranium stockpile limits as outlined in the JCPOA. Nevertheless, the point of this article still stands and such congressional action could be part of negotiations to deescalate current tensions.
(June 21, 2019) — Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) ripped into the Trump administration earlier this month for approving two transfers of U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia since the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
According to NBC News, Kaine and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations “had requested details on seven transfers of nuclear expertise to Saudi Arabia.” Department of Energy records now confirm that the Trump administration signed off on two of those transfers in the past nine months, the first just 16 days after Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Kaine, once Khashoggi’s senator, said in a statement that the nuclear deals are part of “a disturbing pattern of behavior” by the Trump administration, and that the president’s “eagerness to give the Saudis anything they want, over bipartisan Congressional objection, harms American national security interests” and “is fueling a dangerous escalation of tension in the region.”
At face value, the Saudi push for nuclear technology could represent a positive step toward energy security and help the oil economy transition from reliance on fossil fuels. The U.S.-Saudi deals may also be a boon for the United States’ slow-growing domestic nuclear energy industry.
However, central to the issue at hand are the executive branch’s multiple actions in ignorance of strategic experts and defiance of legislators across the political spectrum. Liberal democratic values aside, there is no need to add fuel to the fire that is Saudi Arabia and Iran’s apparent cold war — not at a time when proxy wars and international tensions could turn that war into a hot one.
U.S. concerns about Saudi nuclear ambitions are not unlike those raised about Iran. But whereas concerted efforts to check Iran culminated in 2015 with a multilateral regulatory deal, the Trump administration appears willing to lend the Saudis near-limitless nuclear support.
Seeking to change that dynamic is a bipartisan push in both the House and Senate to assert congressional authority over U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation. The Saudi Nuclear Proliferation Act of 2019 — as introduced in the Senate by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and in the House by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) — currently sits before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
The act calls for a pause on civilian nuclear cooperation until Saudi Arabia meets certain requirements, including transparency about Khashoggi’s murder, “significant progress on the protection of human rights,” and Saudi agreement to what is commonly known as the ‘gold standard’ of nuclear deals — a promise not to pursue uranium enrichment or reprocessing capabilities.
But rather than waiting for the passage of such legislation, the Trump administration has taken clear steps to avoid congressional oversight when it comes to Saudi Arabia.
As Kaine noted, the president had to create “a bogus emergency to bypass a Congressional block on arms sales to the Saudis.” This is more troubling when taking into account news from the New York Times that a provision in that arms deal calls for “high-tech U.S. bomb parts to be built in Saudi Arabia,” or the recent report that China helped Saudi Arabia expand a secretive ballistic missile program.
Trump also vetoed a bipartisan bill — introduced by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) — specifically meant to rein in executive support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. That said, when voting for the Saudi Nuclear Proliferation Act, Congress must form a coalition both large and resolute enough to override any presidential veto.
Now to be fair, there are several reasons to be skeptical about the proposed Saudi nuclear bill. For starters, there are benefits to enrichment and reprocessing capabilities unrelated to nuclear proliferation, namely ease of fuel production and reduction of nuclear waste.
There is also room for debate on the strategic efficacy of holding Saudi Arabia to the nuclear gold standard. An analysis by the International Institute for Strategic Studies notes that “Riyadh might resort to enriching uranium in secret” if held to the gold standard “as part of a hedging strategy that maximises Saudi nuclear options for addressing future contingencies,” especially against Iran.
However, I have to agree with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who told the Daily Beast, “If a government is willing to murder a U.S. green-card holder [Khashoggi] … there’s a legitimate question over whether such a government could be trusted with nuclear energy and the potential weaponization of it.”
As Kaine’s colleague on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Rubio knows as well as anybody in Washington the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But to quote the Florida senator once more, “As important as that relationship is, the price of that relationship cannot be our silence or our acquiescence when they violate norms and principles that are deeply held by the American people and that are embodied by our country.”
When people talk about the risk of losing economic opportunities or political clout in Saudi Arabia, they not only ignore the true scope of U.S. influence in the region, but also fail to realize all the other things at stake when we accept the Trump administration’s ‘do-as-you-wish’ approach to Riyadh.
The Saudi Nuclear Proliferation Act may not be perfect, but it embodies congressional willingness to check Saudi ambitions through entities such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. These approaches to Saudi Arabia are a step in the right direction, and I hope Congress is open to debating and legislating them.
Dylan Ramos is a senior at Loyola Marymount University studying political science, international relations, and history. His writing has been published in Honolulu Civil Beat, Asia Media International, and elsewhere.