Imagine you are the dictator of a fledgling state with a Christmas wish list.
You want the latest nuclear technology to set up a stable source of energy while maintaining the potential to weaponize that tech just in case any regional competitors gets any ideas about hegemony.
You also want a steady flow of small arms to give your extralegal paramilitaries some bite while they enforce your rule on the civilian population and destabilize other regimes in clandestine operation.
Thanks to moves by the Trump Administration, acquiring all these sought-after items is getting much easier. U.S. President Donald Trump, with his cabinet of family members and neoconservatives, has been steadily relaxing oversight and regulatory mechanisms governing the export of nuclear technology and small arms.
These decisions may spark a proliferation of conventional and unconventional weapons that are less traceable and controllable as they get into the hands of rogue states and nasvent non-state actors.
Of course, the U.S. has, for decades, allowed questionable arms transfers in the name of national security, and many of Trump’s deregulatory ideas were engineered by previous administrations. The notable difference that makes Trump stand out is the sheer pace at which arms and technology exports are being deregulated and commodified.
Getting Nuclear Tech Is Easier Than Ever
Tom Barrack, left, Michael Flynn, middle, and Jared Kushner, right (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
The most dramatic rolling back of arms and technology controls is with nuclear tech. In Feb 2019, the U.S. House oversight committee blew the whistle on a secret plan advanced by the White House to sell Saudi Arabia sensitive nuclear technology.
Though the technology sale is intended to merely be for a series of nuclear power plants, Saudi has publicly said they would weaponize the tech as soon as they thought Iran was doing the same.
The traditional regulations governing such sensitive transfers have, so far, not been developed for the deal.
Concocted by a cabal of multinational energy company CEOs and former generals under the corporate name of IP3, the plan is to give Saudi the nuclear technology necessary to enrich uranium in exchange for untold billions. One of the senior U.S. officials who revealed the plan called it “a scheme for these generals to make some money.”
“Bonker-balls” is how one nuclear nonproliferation expert explained it: “[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.”
And indeed, its progress is accelerating.
Despite cries from the nuclear non proliferation community, the U.S.’ Energy Secretary Rick Perry approved the ability of six U.S. companies to secretly transfer the nuclear tech to Saudi on March 27.
Though the companies are not named, the frontrunner in the race to provide Saudi nuclear tech is IP3 whose executives and representatives drafted the initial plan, presented it to Trump, and have regularly met with him to get his approval.
Normally for any country to receive nuclear technology from the U.S., they must sign a bilateral, binding agreement regulating the ways the buyer country can use the tech: these agreements are nicknamed ‘123 Agreements’ after the section of the law by which these agreements are intended to abide.
Not only have Saudi and the U.S. not signed a 123 Agreement, Saudi has continuously refused to do so, because it would limit their ability to weaponize the technology.
“If Tehran goes on to develop a nuclear weapon at some stage, the possibility of a nuclear Saudi Arabia is not difficult to imagine,” Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of the Nuclear and Space Initiative, told Al Bawaba.
Rajagopalan also noted that though a nuclear-armed Saudi would not radically alter the global geopolitical map, it “would be a further reflection of the weakening nuclear nonproliferation architecture.” It would contribute to the deterioration of nuclear arms control norms that were developed precisely in response to the destruction such weapons can reap.
The U.S.' current approach to selling nuclear technology to Saudi, which includes minimizing regulation for the sake of expediency and cutting out competitor suppliers like Russia and China, could seriously jeopardize decades of work to control the spread of hyper-dangers weapons such as ballistic missiles, barrel bombs and cluster munitions.
These moves would "deal a major blow to the integrity and viability of the global nonproliferation regime and lower the normative barrier to nuclear weapons acquisition in other regions of the world," explained Kingston Reif, who is the Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association.
If you’re the head of the Saudi regime, this is all fantastic news. But if you’re the leader of another regime elsewhere in the world, the nuclear sale to Saudi is instructive.
If you can finagle your way into convincing Trump and some of his associates that you’re a rich friend and strategic ally, they may consider you a potential trading partner. The traditional rules governing the deal can be thrown out the window if they are deemed inconvenient for the expediency of the deal, meaning you could get your tech within a few years.
The Commodification of Small Arms
In the name of profit-seeking, drug cartels, paramilitaries, terror groups, may all be able to receive U.S.-manufactured small arms much more easily.
Small arms are anything that can be carried by a foot soldier. They form the backbone of any war lord or rogue regime. Assault rifles, pistols, grenades, sniper rifles, heavy machine guns—these armaments give insurgencies their ability to launch guerrilla wars in or paramilitaries the means to drop crowds of dissidents..
They have always been relatively easy to get from countries like Russia or China, but these countries’ weapons are generally lower-tech than what the U.S. offers.
Trump is looking to rectify this.
The Trump Administration is currently looking to finalize the authority providing oversight of small arms sales from the Department of State to the Department of Commerce; from the diplomatic wing of the U.S. to its commercial side in a process called The Export Control Reform Initiative.
The Department of Commerce presents far fewer regulations for the products it is mandated to oversee than the Department of State, and is primarily tasked with maximizing economic growth.
This has arms experts worried that small arms will be treated more like commodities the U.S. can use to saturate global arms markets rather than potentially toxic political liabilities that can destabilize countries.
“The types of weapons the administration wants to remove from State Department review and Congressional notification actually merit the tightest export control because of their real and potential role in fueling violence, including violence against U.S. military and law enforcement personnel,” Jeff Abramson, a Senior Fellow at the Arms Control Association said in a House hearing on the matter.
“Research indicates that the types of weapons being transferred to Commerce control—AR- and AK-type rifles and their ammunition—are ‘weapons of choice’ of drug trafficking organizations in Mexico and other Central American countries. Many can also be easily converted to fully automatic weapons,” he added.
Crucially under the current regulatory scheme, the State Department is required to notify Congress of all arms sales worth more than $1 million, to keep the legislature up to speed on whom the U.S. is arming. This requirement is scheduled to be scrapped.
Another key regulatory element to be scrapped is a requirement under the Foreign Assistance Act that the U.S. stop arms sales to countries found to be consistently violating human rights. Transferring oversight of deals to the Commerce Department removes this legal requirement, which in practice removes a legal obstacle authoritarian regimes have to buying U.S. arms.
The State Department monitors the end-use of arms, meaning they try to see how the arms they are authorizing the sale of are being used and re-sold around the world. Because the Commerce Department is concerned with growth and not political or humanitarian stability, they will likely not monitor arms’ end-uses.
This makes the gun far less tractable than they already are, and will allow them to pervade black and grey markets, where they can be bought by anyone who has the cash for U.S. guns.
The U.S. already has a long-standing tradition of exporting arms to unstable regions only for them to end up in the hands of extremist groups. Transferring oversight of small arms deals to the Commerce Department essentially guarantees that problem will only get worse.
The move has been mulled for years, and actually was almost done under the Obama Administration.
The only thing standing in its way is Senator Robert Menendez, who is a part of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Menedez has vowed to stop the move, because it’ll likely make it far easier to sell and manufacture weapons for international client while making it harder to track what happens to those arms. Menendez also warned that the move would “open the floodgates of information” regarding 3D printed firearms, meaning anyone with an advanced enough 3D printer could receive blueprints in the future to make their own small arms thanks to the reform initiative.
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