Any report that has the words “Trump” and “nuclear power” in the headline should stop you in your tracks, given that our manchild president should not be trusted with a pair of scissors, let alone the most powerful kind of energy mankind has ever devised at scale. Per Axios:
President Trump is set to meet this afternoon with U.S. energy industry leaders to discuss issues including the possibility of providing Saudi Arabia with a path to nuclear power.
Why it matters: Saudi Arabia says it wants nuclear power in order to be able to divert more oil for export, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) led negotiations with the U.S. Energy and State departments last year over a power plants deal “worth upward of $80 billion,” per the NY Times. But the kingdom has reportedly resisted safeguards to ensure it doesn’t develop nuclear weapons, and MBS said last March that Saudi Arabia will “follow suit as soon as possible” if its rival Iran makes a break for the bomb.
Nuclear power is very different from nuclear bombs, but nuclear power is also the perfect cover to build nuclear bombs. No one has any reason to take the Saudis at their word that this is not about obtaining a weapon that has proven to elevate a country’s standing in the global pecking order, so let me put my political science hat on, and walk you through five extremely plausible scenarios that could arise from this madness.
1. This Has Echoes of a Previous Trump Corruption Scandal
We have all understandably forgotten about this given the hyperspeed at which the news cycle operates, but in the distant past—2017—a whistleblower revealed a truly alarming plan involving the shortest tenured National Security Adviser in American history. This whistleblower’s testimony came to light thanks to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), and was summarized as such in Vox:
The project in question — promoted by a group of former senior US military officers, and often described as a “Marshall Plan” of sorts — would involve US companies working with Russian companies to build and operate nuclear plants in the Middle East, and export spent fuel from those plants.
In June 2015, Flynn flew to Egypt and Israel to “gauge attitudes” on the proposal, Newsweek’s Jeff Stein has reported. And one of the companies involved in the project covered his travel expenses and wrote him a check for $25,000 for the trip, though it’s not clear if Flynn cashed the check.
But reports over the last few months have suggested that Flynn continued to promote the project after the election, and even after he had been sworn in as national security adviser.
Let’s assume that Saudi Arabia’s pursuit is only about nuclear power and not nuclear weapons: do you really trust that this scheme dubbed the “Trump/Putin [Middle East] Marshall Plan” by Alex Copson of ACU Strategic Partners in an e-mail obtained by Reuters has nothing to do with this Axios report that Trump is trying to convince U.S. energy companies to back a plan to bring nuclear power to a Middle Eastern country?
If this new report is a way to get that initial whistleblown plan in motion, then that means the President of the United States likely has a financial interest in delivering nuclear power to the Middle East.
This is fine.
2. It Sparks a Nuclear Arms Race
Even if Saudi Arabia doesn’t get nuclear weapons, just the pursuit or even the perception of a pursuit of nuclear weapons can spark a nuclear arms race. Iran has been trying for years to obtain a nuclear weapon, and they would surely ramp up those efforts if their other geographical foe tried to get one. I said “other” geographical foe because Israel’s claim to not have nukes is the most well-known lie in the world. Saudi Arabia trying to get nukes means Iran trying to get nukes. Period. And I haven’t even mentioned Turkey yet.
3. Oh yeah, Turkey
Oh yeah, the country with, according to the World Bank, the 17th largest economy in the world—larger than the economies of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. Turkey is ruled by a despot who spends his days persecuting political dissidents and trying to get the starting center for the New York Knicks extradited and would not hesitate to incorporate nuclear weapons into his widening power grab. If Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran have nukes, that means Turkey gets nukes. Period. We could be barreling towards a scenario where 28% of the highlighted countries and the vast majority of landmass in this picture are controlled by nuclear powers.
4. This Nuclear Arms Race Could Spill Out of the Middle East
Given that “Middle East” is an inherently colonialist term (what is it “middle” and “east” of?), it’s not exactly concretely descriptive, but given the recent history of U.S. foreign policy adventurism, that image is more or less a good representation of what landmass constitutes the Middle East as we have come to know it. To its east, India and Pakistan have been rattling the world’s nerves with their nuclear weapon-empowered posturing for decades. North of that is the western portion of nuclear-armed China, and north of that is nuclear-armed Russia.
Giving the Saudis nuclear weapons would kick-start a chain-reaction that would lead to a nuclear firewall stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pacific—and that’s only including countries that already have nuclear weapons. If the entire Middle East power center is laden with nukes, why not the North African power center? Nigeria has a larger economy and much more oil than Israel, why shouldn’t they have nukes too? South Africa ended its nuclear weapons program in 1989, but you can bet that those files still exist somewhere and they could restart the program next year if they wanted to. And if a country like Nigeria gets nukes, why not the eighth largest economy the world (Brazil)? Like South Africa, they have a dormant Cold War-era nuclear program that they could resuscitate if they wanted to.
See how all it takes is one shift in the power balance of one region to spark a litany of others throughout the region and beyond? This is not a topic to be trifled with.
5. Integrating U.S. Companies With Foreign Nuclear Ambitions Is Not Great!
I mean, this should be self-evident, but it is the Trump era. What happens if Exelon, Westinghouse, TerraPower, GE, BWXT, X-energy, Fluor, NuScale, Lightbridge and AECOM invest in a Saudi nuclear power program that turns into a Saudi nuclear weapons program? Do American companies then have a vested interest in the Saudi nuclear weapons program? If not, did they finance its creation? Even if it doesn’t become a nuclear weapons program, does this mean that U.S. energy companies now have a fiduciary interest in spreading nuclear power throughout the world? What does the State Department think of this policy being in the hands of private business? Etc…etc…etc…
If this does happen, I’m not sure that there’s a better example of capitalism run amok than U.S. companies having a vested financial interest in a nuclear arms race taking place in the most volatile region on the planet.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.