The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why was the Trump administration so eager to give nuclear technology to the reckless Saudi regime?

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Group of 20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, 2018. (Sergio Moraes/Reuters)

SAUDI ARABIA’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has built a record of reckless aggression against opponents both at home and abroad. He has also declared on at least one occasion that his regime could seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It would seem common-sensical for the United States to avoid transferring any nuclear technology to his regime without ironclad guarantees that it could not be used to build bombs. Yet the Trump administration appears to have persisted in considering proposals to do just that — in part at the urging of senior officials and lobbyists with troubling conflicts of interest.

A report by the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Reform Committee this week provided new details of how former national security adviser Michael Flynn and other National Security Council officials attempted to rush through a plan for U.S. companies to sell nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia in the early weeks of the Trump administration. Ignoring warnings by career officials that they could violate laws on technology transfers, as well as conflict-of-interest rules, they pushed a scheme drawn up by a firm represented by several well-connected retired generals.

According to the committee report, Mr. Flynn had identified himself as an adviser to the company, and the plan called for President Trump to appoint his close friend Tom Barrack to oversee a deal with the Saudis even though his private business has raised considerable funds from Saudi investors.

Though the NSC initiative appears to have been squelched by H.R. McMaster, who replaced Mr. Flynn, negotiations with the Saudis have quietly continued under Energy Secretary Rick Perry. As recently as last week, Mr. Trump held a meeting with nuclear company executives in the Oval Office to discuss power-plant sales to Saudi Arabia. The session was organized by the firm that previously collaborated with Mr. Flynn, and the shadows of possible conflicts of interest persist. One of the nuclear companies, Westinghouse Electric, is owned by a firm that also bought a stake in a troubled Manhattan skyscraper owned by Jared Kushner’s family company. Mr. Kushner, a key interlocutor with Mohammed bin Salman, is due to visit the kingdom again next week.

There is an argument to be made for U.S. firms selling nuclear plants to Saudi Arabia: If the kingdom is determined to acquire them, then it would be better it do so from U.S. companies than from their Russian or Chinese competitors. But that logic holds only if the administration negotiates a deal with Riyadh imposing strict controls on the technology. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the only responsible accord would be one that prohibited the regime from any enrichment of uranium or reprocessing of spent fuel — techniques that can be used to build nuclear weapons.

Unsurprisingly, the arrogant crown prince is refusing to accept those terms — probably because he wishes to preserve a nuclear-arms option. Though federal law requires the United States to negotiate a protocol on the conditions for supplying nuclear technology and submit that to Congress, it does not mandate those conditions. So Congress must insist that any nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia embrace this gold standard. To do otherwise would only compound the danger posed by Mohammed bin Salman.

Read more:

The Post’s View: MBS promised a bullet for Khashoggi. Congress must promise consequences for MBS.

David Ignatius: The Khashoggi killing had roots in a cutthroat Saudi family feud

James Downie: Democrats should investigate the Kushner-MBS connection

Jamal Khashoggi: What the Arab world needs most is free expression

The Post’s View: MBS has a toxic record of recklessness. The Trump administration doesn’t need him.