Senate Democrat raises concerns about US-Saudi nuclear deal

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), co-chair of the Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group, is raising concerns over Saudi Arabia’s intention to pursue a civil nuclear program with the U.S., citing the country’s “appalling human rights practices” and desire for nuclear weapons.

In a Wednesday letter to President Biden, Markey said he was worried about reports that the administration is getting close to a deal with Saudi Arabia that would see the Arab Gulf state normalize ties with Israel in exchange for U.S. military commitments and partnership on the development of a nuclear energy program.

“Although I strongly support and would eagerly welcome a rapprochement between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including a two-state solution, I have deep concerns about the reported military and nuclear contours of a U.S.-Saudi deal,” Markey wrote.

“I fear that Saudi Arabia — a nation with a terrible human rights record — cannot be trusted to use its civil nuclear energy program solely for peaceful purposes and will instead enrich uranium and seek to develop nuclear weapons. I urge your Administration to ensure that the path towards Middle East peace holds Saudi Arabia accountable for its appalling human rights practices and constrains its ability to become a nuclear power.”

Markey’s objections highlight the challenges facing the Biden administration to carry out an ambitious, paradigm-shifting policy in the Middle East ahead of the election in November.

The Biden administration is moving forward on plans to broker ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, shifting parameters of a deal that was described as nearly done before Hamas launched a shocking attack against Israel on Oct. 7.

For Saudi Arabia, opening ties with Israel are contingent on new U.S. military commitments that would include a mutual defense pact similar to NATO’s Article 5 provision; safeguarding weapons supplies to Riyadh amid congressional opposition; and partnership on a civil nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia is reportedly growing concerned with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s blanket rejection of a Palestinian state and is pursuing a “plan B” to move forward on U.S. and Saudi agreements, The Guardian reported.

Nearly all Republicans and a significant number of Democrats support efforts by the administration to establish ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia and deliver on Saudi requests for deeper U.S. military commitments in the region.

Achieving such a deal between Israel, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is viewed as having a better chance of succeeding in the Biden administration, where pushback from Democrats would be muted compared to their reaction to a Republican such as former President Trump seeking a deal if he returns to office.

Still, skeptics of Riyadh’s plans to develop its nuclear energy sector say strict safeguards must be in place to prevent the development of nuclear weapons. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de-facto ruler, has said that the kingdom would develop nuclear weapons if Iran followed through on its ambitions to build a bomb.

“Saudi Arabia’s public flirtation with becoming a nuclear-armed state, however, strongly militates against an agreement that includes defense guarantees and support for its civil nuclear energy program,” Markey wrote in his letter.

Markey also raised objections to doing business with Saudi Arabia over a long list of human rights concerns. Biden backtracked on making Riyadh a “pariah” over the October 2018 killing of U.S.-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which the intelligence community pointed to the crown prince approving an operation to “capture or kill” the Saudi critic.

“Saudi Arabia must make substantial progress on human rights, including through the release of political prisoners, before the United States should even consider the kind of agreement it is reportedly negotiating with the Kingdom,” Markey wrote in his letter.

He cited restrictions on nearly all political and civil liberties, criminalization of dissent, discrimination against women and minority groups, death penalty executions for nonviolent crimes and peaceful opposition to the monarch and unfair judicial processes.

“Saudi Arabia also has an established pattern of unlawful and extrajudicial killings, such as the killing of hundreds of Ethiopian displaced persons and asylum seekers at the Yemeni-Saudi border; unlawful airstrikes in its military campaign against the Houthis, which have killed and wounded thousands of civilians … Working conditions for the mostly foreign labor force are often exploitative, with laborers vulnerable to harassment, detention, trafficking, and forced labor,” he continued.

Markey requested the administration respond by May 15 on the details of U.S. talks with Saudi Arabia.

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