US President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman shake hands at the White House on March 14, 2017. Trump heads to Saudi Arabia this weekend on his first foreign trip since taking office (AFP Photo/NICHOLAS KAMM)
Since the FBI raided former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago in August, Americans were reminded that Trump’s former national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and close friend and inaugural committee chairman Tom Barrack negotiated with Saudi Arabia to sell the kingdom the technology to build at least 14 nuclear reactors.
Whistleblowers were alarmed that the kingdom would use the technology for nuclear weapons and alerted Congress to the secret negotiations, resulting in a Congressional investigation. The White House did not cooperate with the investigation or share any requested documents.
But the House Oversight Committee obtained more than 60,000 pages of texts, emails, corporate memos and reports that offered a vivid look at how dangerous the Middle East could have become if the secret negotiations resulted in a sale.
Flynn wasn’t just negotiating on behalf of U.S. companies wanting to sell technology to the Saudis. He was also negotiating on behalf of Russia.
Like Trump, Flynn wanted to lift U.S. sanctions. Part of the deal he was pitching to the Saudis was that Russian construction and nuclear engineering firm OAO OMZ could sell its products and expertise to the kingdom
This summer, it looks as if Saudi Arabia is getting the technology it initially had wanted from Flynn and the Trump Administration– and Russia is in position to deliver it to the kingdom.
And one thing hasn’t changed since 2016 when Flynn first hatched his plan to get the Saudis nuclear technology: The Saudis still don’t want to agree to nonproliferation or inspections of any nuclear technology they buy.
This summer as Trump appears to have been refusing to return classified documents to the U.S. government, Saudi Arabia made an announcement the Western press didn’t notice. It announced it was taking bids from China, Russia, France and South Korea to build several nuclear reactors across the kingdom. And Saudi Arabia still didn’t want to agree to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“That should set off alarm bells,” the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists warned in July. “Late in 2020, word leaked that the Saudis have been working secretly with the Chinese to mine and process Saudi uranium ore. These are steps toward enriching uranium—and a possible nuclear weapon program.”
The nukes’ long, strange trip
While Trump was still on the presidential campaign trail in 2016, Flynn was negotiating a deal for the Saudis to get at least 14 – and as many as 40 – nuclear reactors from companies in America and Russia. As a Congressional investigation would discover, Flynn had close ties to IP3, a nuclear energy firm run by former U.S. generals, that would supply much of the materials, expertise and design.
Trump’s longtime friend Tom Barrack is a Lebanese American with business contacts across the Middle East. Barrack wanted Trump to appoint him a special envoy to the Middle East. Barrack helped Flynn push for the nuclear deal. Interestingly, Flynn recommended that Barrack be point man for the Saudi Arabian nuclear project rather than an official Trump’s Department of Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, would choose.
As Trump delivered his inauguration speech on January 20, 2017, Flynn texted one U.S. company that the plan was “good to go” and was “going to make a lot of very wealthy people.”
On January 22, 2017, Flynn was sworn in as national security adviser. In February, he was fired after proof emerged that he twice lied to Vice President Michael Pence about his communications with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
Whistleblowers alerted Congress to how Flynn negotiated without properly briefing Congress or the State Department, alarming Republicans as well as Democrats.
But according to the Congressional investigative report, Trump and Energy Secretary Rick Perry continued after Flynn was fired.
Investigators found emails mentioning IP3 meetings with Perry and one with Perry and Trump after Flynn’s firing. A June 15, 2018 internal email, IP3 company officials referred to “ongoing meetings” with the DOE. Other IP3 executive emails refer to pressing the Trump Administration to let IP3 sell the kingdom nuclear technology. The report said IP3 executives seemed to think Perry favored the deal even without a nonproliferation agreement.
IP3 later issued a statement that rebutted the report by describing the meetings as routine efforts to explore new markets for American nuclear technology firms.
Interestingly, Trump demanded that Saudi Arabia be his first overseas presidential visit over the objections of his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Saudi Arabia spent an estimated $68 million entertaining Trump with sporting events, auto shows, a country music concert by singer Toby Keith, a projection of a five-story image of Trump’s face on the wall of his hotel, and a multimillion-dollar dinner in his honor.
Barrack’s role in the Saudi nuclear deal is now subject of a federal investigation.
Around Thanksgiving Day 2020, Trump pardoned Flynn who pleaded guilty for twice lying to the FBI. And Flynn’s post-pardon life has been vividly prosperous.
Gold and uranium paved roads
Flynn is now the star of Reawaken America, a road show of election denialists and Christian nationalists that brings election denialists, Oath Keepers, Christian nationalists, vaccine conspiracists, and other far-right celebrities to cities and towns across America. Flynn also promoted the Jan. 6 gathering-turned-lethal-riot with his own recruits. Flynn runs several lucrative consulting and politics-related companies. His Resilient Patriot LLC got paid $58,000 for a conference. An AP and “Frontline” examination of his finances found almost $300,000 in payments to Flynn and his businesses from candidates and political action committees since 2021.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia also made major progress toward its nuclear dreams even after Trump’s presidential defeat.
In August 2020, the Wall Street Journal broke the news that Saudi Arabia, with China’s help, was building a nuclear facility in a remote, sparsely populated corner of the kingdom. The Journal said the facility was meant to extract uranium yellowcake from uranium ore but China had given the Saudis the designs needed to progress beyond that. The Saudi government claimed the facility was for “uranium exploration” only and didn’t violate any international agreements.
“‘Yellowcake’ is a milled form of uranium ore which occurs naturally in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries such as Jordan,” the Journal said. “It is produced by chemically processing uranium ore into a fine powder. It takes multiple additional steps and technology to process and enrich uranium sufficiently for it to power a civil nuclear energy plant. At very high enrichment levels, uranium can fuel a nuclear weapon.”
About a year later, June 3, 2021, news was announced via Russian news agency Tass that the Western press barely noted. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak told a meeting of the Russian-Saudi intergovernmental commission that President Vladimir Putin was helping the Saudi kingdom develop several “nuclear power plants with low power reactors.” Tass refers to the reactors as small and “floating.”
They sound like the modular micro reactors that Trump ordered to be developed in an executive order that he signed the day before the Jan 6 riot.
The Tass article also said that Saudi Arabia would be taking bids from China, South Korea, France, the United States and Russia for its first big, “high powered” nuclear reactor.
Since then, industry analysts have tended to dismiss China as a contender because it doesn’t have the needed experience building in desert terrain to tackle such the ambitious Saudi project. France is deemed too expensive for the Saudi royals’ taste.
South Korea would face some legal complications because Korean nuclear reactors incorporate many elements of engineering, designs and technology owned by America’s Westinghouse, according to the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists. There were also questions about whether treaties and agreements with the United States would require South Korea to get an OK from America to proceed with a sale.
The odds for now favor Russia as the winner.