Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine revealed on Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s administration approved the transfer of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia at least twice since the assassination of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The first of the two approvals was on October 18, two weeks after Khashoggi’s death, Kaine’s office said in a statement. The second was on February 18. The Trump administration has approved a total of seven nuclear technology transfers to Saudi Arabia since December 2017.
The news is both surprising — given the swift global backlash to the Saudis’ role in Khashoggi’s murder — and par for the course for a White House that has repeatedly butted heads with Congress over the former’s coziness with authoritarian regimes.
Read more:Jared Kushner still won’t blame Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Jamal Khashoggi’s killing
Now, however, more and more Republican lawmakers are standing up to Trump amid fears that providing the Saudis with weapons and technology could spark a nuclear arms race with dangerous repercussions.
Republicans’ resistance also comes as the US is confronting Iran after Trump’s decision to withdraw from the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was designed to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
In response to the Trump administration’s deployment of bombers and an aircraft carrier to the Middle East and increased sanctions, Iran in May warned it would stop complying with parts of the nuclear deal if it does not receive economic relief in the near future.
The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog said last Friday that Iran is still in compliance with the key components of the agreement, but that its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium and heavy water had grown.
Iran has also installed 33 new centrifuges capable of more quickly enriching uranium, “potentially placing it in violation of the terms of the deal,” the Associated Press reported.
Read more:Trump is stoking a crisis with Iran, and now Iran is calling his bluff
‘Nuclear nonproliferation malpractice’
As the Trump administration transfers nuclear technology to the Saudis, Democrats in Congress are raising alarms about how Iran will react.
“The president’s committing nuclear nonproliferation malpractice,” Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday. “Because he’s pulled out of the Iran agreement, and by selling to the Saudis nuclear technology, it makes it much more likely that the Iranians are going to restart their nuclear program, because they see that the Saudis have a head start.”
But experts aren’t so sure Iran will be provoked.
David Ottaway, a Middle East fellow at the Wilson Center, told INSIDER the Saudis are “decades” behind Iran when it comes to nuclear capabilities and Tehran has no reason to fear that Riyadh is moving toward developing nuclear weapons.
Ottaway also said Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions largely depend on what Iran does.
Read more:How the Trump administration got into a showdown with Iran that could lead to war
But recent posturing from the US and Iran leaves “plenty of room for miscalculation and that’s what’s got everybody nervous,” Ottaway added. “It’s not clear that the Iranian government is of one mind on this and that the hardliners are more willing to provoke the US to show they can strike back.”
Robert Einhorn, an expert in nuclear nonproliferation and arms control at the Brookings Institution, also told INSIDER that the Trump administration’s transfer of nuclear technology to the Saudis likely didn’t involve sharing anything “sensitive.”
When a nuclear reactor vendor in the US wants to sell reactors to other countries, it has to share some information that’s not publicly available and needs government approval. That’s what appears to have occurred here and “the Iranians understand these approvals weren’t anything significant in the first place,” Einhorn said.
“If Iran ramps up its nuclear program it will be in reaction to the Trump administration’s pressure campaign,” Einhorn, who played a key role in shaping US nuclear policy toward Iran under former President Barack Obama, added.
Read more:Trump and Iran may be on the brink of a war that would likely be devastating to both sides
Republicans strike back
Beyond fears of conflict with Iran, a growing chorus of lawmakers are concerned about the Trump administration’s efforts to bypass Congress on US-Saudi relations and arms sales.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of seven senators announced the introduction of 22 separate Joint Resolutions of Disapproval to “protect and reaffirm Congress’ role of approving arms sales to foreign governments.”
The group included Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez, Chris Murphy, Patrick Leahy, and Jack Reed, and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, and Todd Young.
Their move came in response to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration of an emergency last month to bypass Congress for 22 separate arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates totaling $8.1 billion.
The administration notified Congress that it would use a national-security loophole in the Arms Export Control Act to circumvent congressional review and make the arms sale to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan.
Read more:Trump is going around Congress to sell bombs to Saudi Arabia, and a top senator warns it’s an ‘incredibly dangerous precedent’
But lawmakers like Murphy warn this will only exacerbate war in Yemen — the site of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis — where the Saudi-led coalition is fighting a devastating war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Congress’ effort to challenge Trump on arms sales to the Saudis comes after legislators in April passed a resolution to end US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, a move partially inspired by Khashoggi’s death. Trump vetoed the measure.
CNN also reported on Wednesday that lawmakers recently learned that the US had intelligence indicating that the Saudis have escalated their ballistic missile program with China’s help. The Trump administration reportedly didn’t disclose that intelligence to Congress during regular briefings, which infuriated lawmakers.
“There’s been a great deal of ink spilled on the Trump administration’s transactional and values-bereft foreign policy and its implications for our safety, prosperity, and standing in the world,” Edward Price, the former senior director on Obama’s National Security Council, told INSIDER. “It’s not just that the administration is taking action when Congress has failed to act; it’s that they are acting in spite of stated—and even strong—congressional opposition.”
Price noted that while Trump does have more executive authority in conducting foreign policy, the Constitution lists “no such thing as a free hand … and the administration’s efforts to suggest otherwise are especially dangerous when it comes to an issue as complex as our relationship with Saudi Arabia, which implicates issues of energy, national security, human rights, civil liberties, nonproliferation, regional stability, and the potential for conflict with Iran.”