Congress questions US role in Saudi nuclear programme

EPA-EFE//AHMED YOSRI

Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih speaks during a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 9, 2019.

Congress questions US role in Saudi nuclear programme


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White House officials have been pushing a plan to sell US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential defiance of legal restrictions, according to an investigation by congressional Democrats.

The report makes a specific reference to former National security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign after less than one month on the job after it became public that he had lied about his paid lobbying activities on behalf of the Turkish government. During the 2016 campaign, Flynn had allegedly also worked for IP3, a US consortium of companies seeking to build more than a dozen nuclear plants in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The report also makes reference to the lobbying efforts of KT McFarland, who was ousted as Deputy White House National Security Adviser by Flynn’s successor, General HR McMaster. McFarland was later forced to withdraw her nomination as US Ambassador to Singapore due to concerns around inconsistencies in her answers related to links between Trump associates and Russian officials, in particular about discussions between Flynn and Russia’s ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

The House of Representatives’ oversight committee report outlines a lucrative, but a legally troublesome plan, that would allow for considerable technology transfers to Riyadh. What has become worrisome for several lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties is the dual use of nuclear technology and the fear that Saudi Arabia is looking into developing its own nuclear weapons programme.

Riyadh insists that Saudi Arabia’s ambitions are limited to the diversification of the Kingdom’s energy mix, which is currently reliant almost exclusively on oil for electricity production.

In September 2018, the Saudi energy minister, Khalid al-Falih, told the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna that Saudi Arabia was planning to develop at least 16 nuclear plants over the next 25 years to provide 15% of its energy by 2032. A Saudi nuclear programme could be worth more than $80 billion depending on how many plants the Saudis build.

Riyadh is still in the process of deciding which country they want to help them develop a nuclear energy programme. The US currently tops a shortlist that also includes Russia, China, and South Korea.

Worries over dual-use uranium enrichment

On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, US Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette made clear that Washington will not allow Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons. His statement was in reference to a longstanding US policy dating back to 1954, which bars any cooperation on nuclear energy, including plutonium enrichment, that later could be used for the development of a nuclear arsenal.

Saudi Arabia has, however, refused to rule out weapons-grade uranium enrichment, thereby matching the technological capabilities of its arch-enemy, Iran.

Under the now-endangered 2015 nuclear agreement, Iran is allowed to maintain a small number of nuclear centrifuges though it has to ship 97% of its fuel out of the country.

Buying ready-made nuclear fuel abroad would be cheaper option for Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh is keen to match Iran’s nuclear technology and during negotiations with the Trump Administration last year, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad Prince Salman was adamant that the kingdom will not welcome inspections from the UN or the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding its nuclear programme.

The US House and Senate could cancel any nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia although they would need an extended majority that can override President Donald J. Trump‘s veto power.

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