Most recently, the administration blessed the sharing of certain information about nuclear energy with the Saudi government. In response, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s senior Democrat, Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Republican committee member Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) drafted a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry:
As you are aware, in order for the United States to engage in major nuclear cooperation with a foreign country, the United States must enter into a so-called “123 agreement.” A 123 agreement can only enter into force after Congress has reviewed it and evaluated whether the agreement meets the nonproliferation standards required by Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.The United States currently does not have a 123 agreement in force with Saudi Arabia. While we are aware an . . . authorization can be utilized for certain types of limited nuclear cooperation, we are particularly concerned about this mechanism being used right now with Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has engaged in many deeply troubling actions and statements that have provoked alarm in Congress and led lawmakers to begin the process of reevaluating the U.S.-Saudi relationship and our long-term stability and interests in the region. We therefore believe the United States should not be providing nuclear technology or information to them at this time.
There is good reason to be concerned about the Saudis’ commitment to nuclear nonproliferation. “As has been reported, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly asked during nuclear cooperation negotiations that no limitations in a 123 agreement be placed on its ability to enrich uranium and reprocess its spent nuclear fuel,” the senators write. “Many in Congress therefore worry that Saudi Arabia’s interest in someday producing its own stocks of nuclear fuel—despite the fact the Kingdom could purchase fuel on the international market more cheaply—could lead to it to divert fuel to a covert nuclear weapons program.” They point out that none other than Mohammed bin Salman “has stoked fears surrounding Saudi Arabia’s interest in acquiring a nuclear weapon, asserting in March 2018 that ‘without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.’ ”
Taking a step back, this issue raises the question of why, in light of Saudi atrocities in the Yemen war and the gruesome murder of Khashoggi, we are even considering this deal. This extraordinary step, seemingly outside the normal processes for nuclear technology channels, would be questionable even if a responsible democracy were the recipient. The Saudi government does not remotely meet that standard.
The senators raise a host of questions about how this came to be (e.g., “What are the nonproliferation risks associated with these authorizations? What negotiations has the department engaged in with Saudi Arabia? How did these negotiations lead to the development of the authorizations? What was the interagency process behind the authorizations? How were the approvals coordinated?”).
One fears, however, that this policy, like so much else in this administration (including security clearances), is subject to the whims of Trump and his family members. Whether there are issues at play that affect Jared Kushner and Trump’s financial interests specifically is unknown because we still do not have Trump’s tax returns, nor has he liquidated his holdings, which would have prevented a host of conflicts, receipt of emoluments and, at the very least, the appearance of foreign corruption.
Menendez and Rubio are right to demand information on nuclear energy transfers, but this situation is merely one of many concerning the financial secrecy that Trump has been allowed to maintain. Until we know exactly where Trump’s money and credit come from, the earnings he derives from Saudis at his properties and his son-in-law’s interests (recall that four foreign powers let on that they thought Kushner could be manipulated because of his financial situation), we won’t know for sure whether moves such as this stem from terrible foreign policy judgment, personal greed or both.