Congress Balks at a Nuclear Riyadh

It has now been six months since Washington Post journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi was gruesomely murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Since then, members of Congress have expressed outrage and demonstrated a real appetite for holding Saudi Arabia accountable, be it through freezing weapons sales, sanctioning members of the royal family, or withdrawing US support for the Saudi war in Yemen. President Donald Trump and his administration have largely weathered the storm brewing on Capitol Hill, doing the bare minimum to placate all but the most livid lawmakers. It is now abundantly clear that the Trump Administration finds the Saudi response to the murder of Khashoggi—determined by US intelligence to have been carried out at the order of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)—satisfactory enough to ignore further calls from senators and representatives for punishment and to proceed with business as usual.

In fact, the United States has been working to facilitate a civilian nuclear energy program in Saudi Arabia. Over the last week, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, who is the cabinet official most responsible for overseeing Washington’s bilateral relations in the field of nuclear cooperation, appeared before multiple congressional committees and confirmed that he has been meeting with Saudi officials and with private companies to advance nuclear cooperation between Riyadh and Washington.

By the Numbers: 810s and 123s

A Daily Beast report recently drew members’ attention to Secretary Perry’s efforts with a lengthy article about six authorizations (though another publication reported the number of authorizations as seven) that the secretary has signed in recent months. The authorizations, known as “Part 810,” allow private companies to share preliminary information with the Saudis about how a potential nuclear cooperation agreement might be executed. Perry later confirmed the reports during a Senate hearing.

Lawmakers are perturbed by the unreported 810 authorizations because, in their eyes, the lack of transparency seems nefarious, especially when combined with previous reports that members of the National Security Council and individuals close to the White House have specifically pushed for US companies to work with Saudi Arabia to establish a nuclear energy program. The fact that the Department of Energy is taking the lead is also unusual because normally this kind of agreement is generated by the State Department.

Secretary Perry raised a valid point about his actions during his appearance before the committees this week. Unlike another authorization known as a “123 agreement,” the secretary is not required by law to submit the 810 authorizations for congressional approval—although at least one member of Congress suggests that the Atomic Energy Act (from which the 810 authorization is derived) expressly states that Congress must be kept apprised. In addition, the law allows for details of the authorizations to remain private if they include proprietary business information that a private company may feel would be jeopardized if the 810 authorization were made public.

The aforementioned “123 agreements” are of concern to members of Congress, though, because while former administrations were keen to impose the most strident of terms on any agreement with countries seeking to cooperate on civilian nuclear energy programs, there is reason to doubt that this administration would extract those same concessions from Saudi Arabia. While countries like the United Arab Emirates have agreed to the highest of standards (i.e., the “gold standard”) that protect US technology from being used to eventually produce nuclear weapons, Saudi Crown Prince MBS has steadfastly refused to renounce the goal of nuclear bombs.

Congress Uneasy with Nuclear Talks, Posture toward Saudi Arabia

Secretary Perry’s apparent obfuscation and the general enthusiasm which the administration appears to have for a nuclear Saudi Arabia makes members of Congress of all political stripes uneasy. During the rest of Perry’s hearings with the Senate Committee that oversees energy as well as hearings with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission tasked with regulating nuclear programs, lawmakers displayed unease regarding the administration’s path. The latter commission, according to the commissioners, was unaware of Perry’s authorizations, despite the fact that it is mandated by law to consult about such authorizations.

In response, senators and representatives—Democratic and Republican alike—are now pressing for answers. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) called for more information from Secretary Pompeo while a bipartisan duo in the Senate wrote a letter demanding more information from Secretary Perry. Lawmakers have already introduced legislation in this Congress that seeks to rein in nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia; indeed, the firestorm over Perry’s authorizations will only spur calls for limiting Riyadh’s capabilities—perhaps even more so now that satellite images reportedly show that Saudi Arabia’s nuclear power plant is almost complete.

But the Trump Administration’s willingness and eagerness to arm Saudi Arabia, despite Congress’s demands for accountability, is a broader theme that goes beyond nuclear technology and nuclear cooperation. This administration seems content with ignoring past Saudi indiscretions and moving forward, providing Riyadh sensitive and powerful military equipment as well, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Just this week the US Missile Defense Agency announced that it had modified a contract with Lockheed Martin in order to begin producing $2.5 billion in missile interceptors for the missile defense system, inching Saudi Arabia closer to securing one of the premier missile defense systems in use. Though it is defensive in nature, it is a prestigious piece of equipment that is being used only by the United States, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partners, and Israel, aside from being dispatched to the Persian Gulf. . Though Congress approved the sale in 2017, the optics of the timing are inopportune and, to lawmakers, appear as though the administration is happy to build up Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities despite its ruler’s shortcomings and unpredictability.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act. On March 21, Rep. Brian Mast (R-Florida) reintroduced a bill from 2017—this time marked as H.R. 1850—that aims to “impose sanctions with respect to foreign support for Palestinian terrorism, and for other purposes.” This Congress’s version differs in some notable ways from its predecessor, but the overall tone of the bill’s language is significantly less anti-Qatar.

Affirming US Support for Treaty of Peace Between Egypt and Israel. On March 27, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia) introduced H. Res. 258 to express continued support for Egypt and Israel upholding their peace treaty signed in 1979.

Support the Repatriation of Religious and Ethnic Minorities in Iraq. Also on March 27, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska) introduced H. Res. 259 to express support for repatriating Iraq’s religious and ethnic minorities “to their ancestral homelands.”  

Additional Sanctions on IRGC. On March 28, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a bill (S. 925) that would levy additional sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Recognizing American Muslims’ History and Contributions to Our Nation. On April 1, 15 House members introduced H.Res. 276 to celebrate the millions of American Muslims who reside in the United States.

War Powers Resolution. The War Powers Resolution passed by the Senate earlier this year (S. J. Res. 7) is on the docket in the House this week. Prior to the vote, a collection of activist organizations and advocacy groups sent letters to members of Congress urging them to refrain from voting on a “motion to recommit” the joint resolution. This tactic was used to scuttle the House’s version of the War Powers Resolution by adding non-germane (i.e., irrelevant) language to the legislation that was used to strip it of its privileged status.

To Encourage Accountability for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi. On April 2, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) introduced H.R. 2037 to encourage the US government to hold accountable those found to be responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Department of State Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2020. On March 27, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared before the House Appropriations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) to testify about the Trump Administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request. Unsurprisingly, the committees’ Democratic majorities pilloried the secretary for the proposed budget cuts. Pompeo was also forced to answer for the administration’s policies toward Saudi Arabia and he defended President Trump’s unreleased plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians after Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

HFAC Ranking Member McCaul Discusses Congress’s Foreign Policy off the Hill. On April 1, HFAC ranking member Mike McCaul (R-Texas) visited the Woodrow Wilson Center to discuss the foreign policy challenges facing the 116th Congress. Much of the conversation centered on issues outside the Middle East and North Africa region, but McCaul did comment on two recent developments. He said he supported the administration’s decision regarding the Golan Heights, as he deemed the territory critical for Israel’s security. McCaul also noted that the US-Saudi relationship has been set back over the Khashoggi murder and that it will take some time before that relationship will heal, particularly with members of Congress.

3) Nominations

Trump Taps Libya Ambassador; Senate Committee Votes on Two Nominees. On April 2, President Trump tapped Richard Norland, a career diplomat, to serve as ambassador to Libya. In addition, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote on April 3 to move forward the nominations for ambassadors to Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

4) Correspondence

Bicameral, Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Penning Letter on Syria. A group of representatives and senators are circulating a letter that they intend to send to President Trump regarding the US posture toward Syria. The group, with 48 cosigners as of the date of this publication, are calling on the president to orient US policy in a way that supports Israel’s security and pushes back against Iranian and Russian influence in the country, as well as pressures Hezbollah.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump to Host President Sisi Before Constitutional Amendment Vote. The White House announced this week that it will host Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi just weeks before Egypt is to vote on prolonging Sisi’s rule. Many consider the visit to be a validation and legitimization of Sisi’s undemocratic power grab.

2) Department of State and US Agency for International Development (USAID)

Pompeo Meets with Saudi Deputy Defense Minister, Iraqi Speaker of Parliament. Over the last week, Secretary Pompeo met with Khalid bin Salman, the deputy defense minister of Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed al-Halbusi, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament. Pompeo spoke with each about issues of bilateral and regional concern, particularly the situation in Yemen with the Saudi minister and the continued threat of the Islamic State with the Iraqi parliamentarian.

Department Calls for Investigation into Hospital Bombing. After a Saudi-led coalition bomb tore through a children’s hospital in Yemen, leaving seven dead, State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino said the United States was calling on the Saudis and their allies to investigate the incident.

USAID Director Green Visits Egypt, Jordan. Over the last week, USAID Director Mark Green visited Egypt and Jordan to meet with government officials and community leaders to understand the impact of USAID projects in their countries.

3) Department of Defense

Kuwait, Qatar, and the United States Conduct Trilateral Military Exercise. During April 2-6 (though the statement, released March 29, erroneously says “March 2-6”), the US military worked with Kuwait and Qatar to conduct a trilateral military exercise in Kuwait.

US Pauses Turkey’s F-35 Program. The Pentagon confirmed that the United States is halting the transfer of equipment necessary for Turkey to receive American F-35 fighter jets; this occurred shortly after a group of senators introduced a bill for that purpose. The action is in response to Ankara’s interest in buying Russia’s S-400 missile system. Nevertheless, the Pentagon confirmed that it would continue training Turkish pilots to fly the F-35s.

CENTCOM Confirms Eight US Strikes in Yemen. US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees US military operations in the Middle East and North Africa, confirmed this week that the United States has carried out eight bombing runs in Yemen this year targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

4) Department of the Treasury

Iranian Humanitarian Aid Stymied by US Sanctions. Reports this week suggest that US sanctions have hindered humanitarian aid efforts in Iran, as agencies like the Iranian Red Crescent and the United Nations are experiencing difficulties in using financial services to send money to the areas affected by massive flooding.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here