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What A Transfer Of Nuclear Technology To Saudi Arabia Would Mean For National Security


Let's take a closer look now at what a transfer of highly sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia would mean for U.S. national security. Jeffrey Lewis is a nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif. And he joins us from member station KAZU.

Hi, there.


SHAPIRO: We've just heard about what's in the report. You've read this 24-page report from the House committee. What was your reaction when you saw what was in it?

LEWIS: Well, it's bonker-balls (ph).

SHAPIRO: Bonker-balls (laughter)...

LEWIS: Yeah, to use a...

SHAPIRO: Is that a nonproliferation term?

LEWIS: No, it's an NPR term. But you know, I can't come up with a better word. It's one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. It's a half-baked, grandiose plan with all kinds of things that could go wrong in it and people screaming at them to stop. And they don't stop.

SHAPIRO: Well, just to explain why this plan was so problematic - I mean, Saudi Arabia has signed on to a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, meaning they've committed under international law to not developing nuclear weapons. So why is it so problematic? Why are there obstacles to the U.S. selling civilian nuclear energy technology to a country like Saudi Arabia?

LEWIS: Well, you know, it really depends on the kind of technology. If you're just talking about a reactor that produces power, then you know, that's a normal thing, and that might make a lot of sense. But one of the things that the Obama administration was trying to push the Saudis on was to agree not to either enrich uranium or what's called reprocess the spent fuel. And those are basically the technologies that can be used in energy but are also used to build a bomb. So I think people are very concerned that that kind of technology might have gone through.

SHAPIRO: When you look at what's described in this report, we've heard that it raises legal and ethical concerns. To you, are the primary concerns ethical, like this could be a bad idea, or legal, like this could actually be a crime?

LEWIS: Well, there are certainly ethical concerns. And it does look like, in some cases, that they crossed over into legal concerns. But from my perspective, you know, the reason that we have these laws is to make good policy. So when individuals are going about either breaking the laws or skirting the laws, then you really are defeating the very laws that are designed to stop the spread of this most dangerous technology.

SHAPIRO: And can you tell from reading this report what the goal of the people pushing this policy was? Were they trying to counter Iran by strengthening Saudi Arabia, or were they just trying to make money on the side?

LEWIS: I mean, all I can do is look at what people said. And I go with what the one senior political official stated in the report, which was it was a scheme for these generals to make some money.

SHAPIRO: Now, this report portrays top officials in the Trump White House talking about this as though it was a done deal. But of course, approval would have had to go through Congress. Do you see any way this actually could have been completed?

LEWIS: Well, I think that it was possible to imagine some kind of nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia before the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but now it seems pretty unlikely. And frankly, the scale that they were talking about was really unrealistic. The whole thing really seemed pretty half-baked to me.

SHAPIRO: If there were profit motives involved, who do you think was looking to profit?

LEWIS: Well, my guess is the people pushing it. You know, there have been reports that at one point Saudi Arabia spent $450,000 in a single month promoting the idea that it should have access to this technology. And so even if none of these reactors got built, my guess is a lot of people stood to do very well for themselves.

SHAPIRO: And now that, as we heard, Jared Kushner is heading back to the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, what kinds of conversations do you think are going to happen going forward?

LEWIS: Well, judging from the report, apparently unethical and illegal ones.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Still, even at this point - now that this report has been made public.

LEWIS: I mean, well, one of the things that really struck me about the report - I mean, all kidding aside - is that people were repeatedly warned that they needed to stop. And that doesn't seem to have made any difference. So it seems like this is something that people want to do. And the law just doesn't seem to be all that much of a concern to them.

SHAPIRO: Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, thanks for joining us.

LEWIS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.