‘Regional Arms Race’: U.S. Congressmen Want Trump to Report on Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Ambitions

Representatives introduce bill calling on White House to reveal how U.S. sale of nuclear reactors to Saudis would affect security interests of regional allies such as Israel

U.S. President Donald Trump with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House, Washington, March 20, 2018.
\ JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle want the Trump administration to submit a detailed report to Congress on Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions, warning that the kingdom’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities could lead to an “arms race” in the Middle East.

Representatives Brad Schneider (D-IL) and Mark Meadows (R-NC) – both members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee – introduced bipartisan legislation on the subject last week. If their bill passes, it would force President Donald Trump’s National Security Council to report to Congress within 180 days, evaluating the “national security interests of the United States and regional allies, including Israel, of Saudi Arabia obtaining nuclear fuel enrichment capabilities through a commercial sale.”

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Saudi Arabia’s leadership has stated that the oil-rich kingdom could construct as many as 16 nuclear power stations over the next few years, in order to supply growing energy needs.

While the Saudis have presented the ambitious project as civilian in nature, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in March that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, so will Saudi Arabia.

Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, deputy crown prince and defence minister of Saudi Arabia, October 19, 2015.
dpa Picture-Alliance/AFP

Shortly before that statement, Israeli Channel 10 News reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked the Trump administration not to sell nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia.

Trump, according to the report, refused to make such a commitment and said that if the United States does not sell the nuclear reactors to Riyadh, the Saudis will buy them from China. The administration is currently negotiating such a deal with Saudi Arabia, which could be completed within weeks, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Rep. Schneider told Haaretz that he fears “there is a dismissive approach within the administration on the real significant concerns this could create to some of our allies in the region.” Schneider said he introduced the legislation “because this issue deserves more attention than it is currently receiving.”

The report he would like to see from the administration, he said, would need to touch on a number of concerns, including how the United States will be able to confirm the stated civilian nature of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear plan; and what security measures Saudi Arabia will take to ensure that nuclear technology doesn’t fall into the hands of extremist elements.

The legislation, Schneider added, should not be perceived as a negative step toward Saudi Arabia, which is a key American ally in the regional struggle against Iran’s growing influence.

“We need to separate between these two things,” he said. “Fighting Iran’s regional aggression is important and, on that issue, Saudi Arabia is one of the allies we are working with. We need to get Iran out of Syria and block their plans for a land bridge. But we also need to be aware of the risk of a nuclear arms race.”

Schneider also said it was “vital” for Congress to “consider the security implications of a Saudi nuclear sale on our closest ally in the region, Israel.” He said he believes his bill will receive cross-party backing, even if the Trump administration tries to work against it. “There is strong bipartisan support for Israel’s security, and people understand this could pose a regional threat to our interests and to those of our ally Israel,” he said.

Rep. Meadows, who chairs the conservative Freedom Caucus in Congress, said that “when terrorist organizations have demonstrated an interest in obtaining nuclear fissile material, and when our ally Israel and other states in the region have long-standing tensions, our government must be cautious and informed about the implications of a nuclear transfer to any state in the Middle East.”

An official at the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC told Haaretz that it hasn’t yet taken a position on the legislation.

“It was just introduced, we are taking a look at it,” the official said. Support for the legislation from pro-Israel groups in Washington could create an interesting test for Israel’s improving ties with Saudi Arabia. The two countries share a common enemy in Iran, and have reportedly increased secret intelligence ties over the past few years. And on Monday, a Canadian research group reported that Saudi Arabia used Israeli cyberware from a company called NSO to target a Saudi dissident in Canada.