A group of Republican senators urged President Donald Trump on Wednesday to suspend negotiations with Saudi Arabia on a potentially lucrative atomic energy agreement following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Lawmakers led by Marco Rubio of Florida said in a letter to the president that they had reservations about the transfer of nuclear power technology even before the Oct. 2 slaying of Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. They warned they would work to block an agreement from securing congressional approval if the administration pushes ahead.
They noted their concern over Saudi Arabia's refusal to consider a nuclear energy agreement that would prohibit the kingdom from pursuing uranium enrichment and plutonium processing "that can bring a nation within weeks of producing a nuclear weapon." The United Arab Emirates accepted the standard in a 2009 civil nuclear pact with the U.S.
The letter also was critical of the leadership of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, although the senators don't mention him by name. Saudi Arabia has changed its narrative about Khashoggi's killing several times, eventually admitting after repeated denials that Khashoggi died inside the consulate and only recently acknowledging that Turkish evidence shows his killing was premeditated.
"The ongoing revelations about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as certain Saudi actions related to Yemen and Lebanon, have raised further serious concerns about the transparency, accountability, and judgment of current decisionmakers in Saudi Arabia," according to the letter.
In addition to Rubio, the letter was signed by Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Todd Young of Indiana and Dean Heller of Nevada.
A National Security Council spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sharon Squassoni, a research professor at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, called the letter a "pretty minor request" given the seriousness of the allegations surrounding the death of the Khashoggi, a 59-year-old columnist for The Washington Post.
"Everything around Khashoggi's murder calls into question how closely we should be aligning ourselves with Saudi Arabia," she said.
He vanished after entering the consulate to pick up paperwork for his upcoming marriage. He had been living in self-imposed exiled in the U.S. and published columns that criticized the government of Prince Mohammed.
A top Turkish prosecutor said Wednesday that Khashoggi was strangled as soon as he entered the building as part of a premeditated killing, and his body was dismembered.
The Trump administration has opened talks with Saudi Arabia on what's known as a "123 agreement." The name comes from the section of the Atomic Energy Act that establishes the parameters for major nuclear cooperation between the United States and other countries. Without one, U.S. nuclear energy companies such as Westinghouse would lose out on business opportunities with the Saudis.
With little new reactor construction in the U.S., American companies are looking overseas for business. But there's competition from France, South Korea and, to a lesser extent, China and Russia. The Saudis have begun selecting the contractors to build the first of as many as 16 nuclear power plants at a cost of more than $80 billion.
Westinghouse Electric Co., which filed for bankruptcy last year, declined to comment on the financial impact to the company if it were to be shut out of a Saudi nuclear power project or relegated to a minor role.
The nuclear power industry has struggled both because of the tremendous cost of building massive reactors and the accelerating shift to other forms of energy such as natural gas and alternative energy, including solar.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July approved a nonbinding resolution saying that any U.S.-Saudi nuclear agreement must make clear that it would prevent a civilian nuclear energy program from becoming a gateway to nuclear weapons development.
Robert Powers, senior director for legislative affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group that lobbies for the nuclear power industry, warned in an email before the vote that the resolution would undercut U.S. foreign policy, national security and economic interests.
"China, France, the Republic of Korea, and Russia are competing with the United States to perform engineering, procurement, and construction work on an initial purchase of two nuclear reactors," Powers wrote. "The winner of this competition will have an advantage with regard to the further construction."
He said there are other ways to prevent the spread of sensitive technologies.