US President Donald Trump, right, shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the White House on March 20 in Washington DC. Photo: AFP/ Mandel Ngan
Then-US president Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the White House on March 20, 2018. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

Corporate interests and confidantes of US President Donald Trump appear to have obtained the blessing of the White House in their bid to lower restrictions on the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, a new Congressional report has found.

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform report, released Monday, said Trump’s friend, chairman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, and Colony Capital executive director Tom Barrack leveraged his insider status to advocate for “foreign interests,” even as his own company stood to benefit from a partnership with the lead company, IP3.

The Wall Street Journal quoted a spokesman for Barrack emphasizing his full cooperation with the committee.

The idea of a US administration working closely with the business community to improve opportunities for commerce and trade is not controversial. Barrack, in lobbying for a Colony-IP3 partnership, touts the benefits of a revitalized US nuclear sector should US nuclear power company Westinghouse be acquired and employed as a vehicle to build Saudi Arabia’s desired 16 nuclear plants.

What is under investigation by the House of Representatives, however, is the prospect of corporate interests overriding US law, potentially setting the stage for Saudi Arabia to obtain a nuclear weapon.

The Trump administration is currently in talks with Riyadh to conclude a 123 agreement, the first step in an exchange of civil nuclear technology. Saudi Arabia’s neighbor and ally, the United Arab Emirates, concluded a similar agreement in 2009, accepting the additional provision known as the “Gold Standard,” in which it renounced the right to pursue enrichment.

IP3 has publicly lobbied for the Gold Standard to be removed as a condition for a US-Saudi nuclear pact, arguing that the Saudis will not accept it and that rivals Russia and China will stand to gain. The company’s apparent insider access to the Trump administration, however, appears to have raised alarm bells for the Oversight Committee.

“Documents show that IP3 is currently pushing the Trump Administration not to require Saudi Arabia to agree to the ‘Gold Standard,’ which is a commitment not to use US nuclear technology to make nuclear weapons,” the committee said.

The report seeks to highlight what it says is a blurring of lines between the administration, corporate interests, and Saudi objectives.

Emails obtained from IP3 shed light on the company’s drive to buy out Westinghouse with financing from the Saudi crown prince’s Public Investment Fund, as well as a close working relationship with the Trump administration from the moment he took office.

“While we are careful not to get ahead of the new administration, our program has been seeded in their policy agenda. You will soon hear it echoed in talking points,” reads a November 2016 email from Mike Hewitt, the CEO of Iron Bridge Group, to IP3.

The Trump administration, according to the committee’s report, refused to cooperate with the investigation.

New nuclear race

The potential for a new nuclear arms race in the Middle East comes at a time when the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA, is unraveling.

Iran earlier this month breached the limit for enriched uranium outlined under the JCPOA, citing the failure of its fellow signatories to defy American sanctions and deliver promised economic benefits.

While Iran’s foreign minister emphasized the reversible nature of the steps, suggesting a desire for a solution, Trump said the enrichment could only be “for one reason,” insinuating the Islamic republic was seeking the bomb in the eyes of the administration.

Saudi Arabia’s 33-year-old heir to the throne, known for his brash succession of foreign policy blunders from Yemen to Lebanon, has in the past tied his country’s nuclear goals to Iran.

“Without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, told CBS television last year.

Notably, corporate emails published in the House report include a number of references to a security aspect of a nuclear technology transfer, going beyond mutual economic benefit.

An email from IP3 director Robert McFarlane to the former (and now convicted) national security adviser Michael Flynn said the transfer of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia would help “restore a stable balance of power to the geopolitics of the Middle East.”

An IP3 briefing ahead of a Saudi trip in November 2017 outlines a number of key themes, including the opportunity for Riyadh to “leapfrog Iran and become a nuclear leader.”

IP3 co-founder Keith Alexander, in summarizing a 2016 visit to Saudi Arabia, makes clear that the company working closely with MBS, at the time deputy crown prince, to secure funding for what he called a “public/private bundled energy and security venture,” again suggesting objectives beyond commerce.

“Corporate and foreign interests are using their unique access to advocate for the transfer of US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia,” Oversight Committee chair Elijah Cummings said in a statement Monday.

“The American people deserve to know the facts about whether the White House is willing to place the potential profits of the president’s personal friends above the national security of the American people and the universal objective of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons,” he added.

The Oversight Committee report also raises concerns about the track record of IP3, publishing redacted emails from an unnamed third company.

“Politely put, IP-3 is the Theranos* of the nuclear industry … We are never sure how they continue to exist, but they usually have some elegantly noble but impossible to complete project in the nuclear field that requires massive policy changes to achieve and then wish to be paid to effect the required policy changes,” it reads.

Screen shot from House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform report investigating the transfer of US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.

The company representative adds that his main interactions with IP3 allegedly included a scheme to ship radioactive waste to Samoa in the South Pacific, which he suggests was tainted by bribery of local officials.

Bipartisan scrutiny

In recent days, Trump has railed against the House Oversight and Reform Committee chair, calling his majority African-American district a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”

The House of Representatives flipped to Democratic Party control in November 2018, and since then, the Oversight Committee has engaged in a series of investigations into the Trump administration’s conduct.

Scrutiny of US ties to Saudi Arabia, however, has become a noticeably bipartisan issue since last year’s murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Congressional efforts to push back on support to Saudi Arabia have centered on the war in Yemen, where the United Nations says Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates are likely guilty of war crimes. The latter has since made a point to publicly scale down its commitment to the Saudi intervention.

Senate Republicans and Democrats this summer blocked an $8 billion deal with Saudi Arabia that included precision-guided munitions, which the UN found to have been repeatedly used to target civilians in Yemen. Trump swiftly vetoed the decision, citing national security concerns. On Tuesday, the Senate failed to override the president’s veto.

The nuclear file, however, may be a different story. In March, the Oversight Committee found that a planned meeting between IP3 executives and US National Security Adviser John Bolton was put on hold. A National Security Council member made the call, citing “legal and ethical concerns.”

*  Theranos, a now-defunct technology company, t0ld investors, doctors and patients that it had developed a cutting-edge blood test. Its former CEO is currently on trial over charges including multimillion-dollar fraud.

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