When Trump came into office in 2016, he and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, began flirting with Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman (MBS). But in the past few months the budding relationship has fallen on hard times. First, there were hard feelings when MBS had journalist Jamal Khashoggi murdered in the back room of an embassy. And now, the Trump administration faces outrage from both sides of the political aisle for attempting to build nuclear-power reactors in Saudi Arabia.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform released a report on the recent discoveries and are now threatening an investigation into the “Trump Administration’s Efforts to Transfer Sensitive Nuclear Technology to Saudi Arabia,” per the memo.
There has certainly been shady dealings and attempts to bypass Congress and proceed with the sale of nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia. But in Trump’s defense, there was zero chance that any congressional committee was going to give a thumbs-up to handing a Middle Eastern power nuclear reactors. So Trump and Former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn got creative.
The Oversight and Reform committee outlined how Flynn and Derek Harvey, who was in charge of Middle Eastern affairs on the National Security Council, worked on a plan to sell nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia with retired U.S. generals and admirals who had formed a private company in support of the plan. But then the whistleblowers came out.
The committee reported that these ambiguous whistleblowers “provided specific dates and information from the relevant correspondence, as well as the names and identities of White House officials engaged in these activities.”
The report continued, saying, “For example, the whistleblowers provided new information about IP3 International, a private company that has assembled a consortium of U.S. companies to build nuclear plants in Saudi Arabia. According to media reports, IP3’s only project to date is the Saudi nuclear plan.”
The report goes on to outline behind-the-scenes work the Trump administration has undertaken to set up nuclear power in Saudi Arabia: fundraising, constant communication with the Saudis and Emiratis, etc. And one of Trump’s friends and fundraisers even, “pondered the notion, for example, of buying a piece of Westinghouse, the bankrupt U.S. manufacturer of nuclear reactors.” Once the deal went public, the administration knew it would have Trump’s fingerprints all over it, but it appears that the plan was to actually have everything sold and built by a group of private companies.
These controversial steps have both the right and left crying “Scandal!” Giving Saudi Arabia access to nuclear power, and possibly nuclear weapons, is rightfully concerning. MBS did say in 2018, “Without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” And sure, it’s a little scary to have someone like MBS, a recognized murderer, in possession of nuclear power, but look at who else has nuclear power.
Iran has nuclear power and weapons (probably). Pakistan has about 150 warheads. India has about 140. Saudi Arabia is a lot more stable than any of those countries and has a decent relationship with the U.S. Congress should take these factors into consideration and take MBS’s offer seriously.
Furthermore, Iran, Pakistan, and India are not even under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). So they technically have no obligations to use their nuclear power for peaceful purposes. At the very least, selling Saudi Arabia nuclear reactants would guarantee their entrance into the NPT.
But it appears that the plan to sell Saudi Arabia nuclear reactors is not just a business deal. From what the House committee has uncovered thus far, it seems like the plan was to sell Saudi Arabia the reactors so that the U.S. could control the nuclear facilities. In that case, selling nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia could be a good security investment for the U.S. in the Middle East. U.S. control and involvement in Saudi nuclear power would assert American dominance in the Middle East. The U.S. could, at the very least, make Iran think twice before doing anything stupidly aggressive.
All the dealings for the sale up to this point have been done in back rooms and under tables. But selling Saudi Arabia nuclear reactors won’t cause WW3. Thanks to the House’s “whistleblowers,” however, Americans are running scared from a deal that could potentially enhance American security and dominance in a turbulent region. The U.S. shouldn’t fear nuclear power going to the big, bad Middle East — it’s already there.
Abby Liebing is a junior studying History and Journalism.