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US-Saudi nuclear talks: A barometer for whither the Middle East?

By James M. Dorsey / YourNewsWire.com

 

Talks aimed at transferring US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia serve as an indicator of where the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is heading as well as the strength of the informal Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran. The possible transfer could spark a new arms race in the Middle East and constitutes one explanation why Saudi responses to President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel were muted and limited to rhetorical statements.

Mr. Trump’s decision was perhaps most challenging for the Saudis, who as custodians of Islam’s two holiest cities, would have been expected to play a leading role in protecting the status of the city that is home to the faith’s third holiest site. Saudi Arabia was represented at this week’s summit of Islamic countries in Istanbul that recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine by its foreign minister, Adel al Jubeir, rather than the king, crown prince or another senior member of the ruling family.

The difficulty for the Saudis is not only their close cooperation with Israel, willingness to increasingly publicly hint at what long was a secret relationship, and their position as the US’ closest friend in the Arab world, who reportedly was willing to endorse a US Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in the making that would fail to meet the minimum demanded by Palestinians and Arab public opinion.

With Mr. Trump backing Saudi efforts to counter Iranian influence in a swath of land stretching from Asia to the Atlantic coast of Africa despite mounting US criticism of the kingdom’s conduct of its military intervention in Yemen, Riyadh has a vested interest in maintaining its close ties to Washington. While having been put in an awkward position, international condemnation of Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem move has also increased Saudi leverage.

Mr. Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia as well as his transactional approach to foreign policy that aims to further US business interests holds out the promise of tipping the Middle East’s military balance of power in favour of the kingdom.

In the president’s latest effort, his administration is weighing allowing Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium as part of a deal that would ensure that bids by Westinghouse Electric Co. and other US companies to build nuclear reactors in the kingdom are successful. Past US reluctance to endorse Saudi enrichment and reprocessing of uranium has put purveyors of US nuclear technology at a disadvantage.

Saudi Arabia agreed with the US in 2008 not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing but has since backed away from that pledge. “They wouldn’t commit, and it was a sticking point,” said Max Bergmann, a former special assistant to the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Testifying to Congress in November, Christopher Ford, the US National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation, refused to commit the Trump administration to the US restrictions. The restrictions are “not a legal requirement. It is a desired outcome.” Mr. Ford said. He added that the 2015 international agreement with Iran that severely restricts the Islamic republic’s nuclear program for at least a decade, made it more difficult for the United States to insist on limiting other countries’ enrichment capabilities.

Saudi Arabia plans to construct 16 nuclear power reactors by 2030 at a cost of an estimated $100 billion. Officially, Saudi Arabia sees nuclear power as a way of freeing up more oil for export in a country that has witnessed dramatic increases in domestic consumption and contributing to diversification of its economy. It would also enhance Saudi efforts to ensure parity with Iran in the kingdom’s ability to enrich uranium and its quest to be the Middle East’s long-term, dominant power.

Saudi Arabia has large uranium deposits of its own. In preparation of requesting bids for its nuclear program, Saudi Arabia in October asked the US, France, South Korea, Russia and China for preliminary information. In addition to the United States, the kingdom has in recent years concluded a number of nuclear-related understandings with China as well as with France, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea and Argentina.

Mr. Trump’s apparent willingness to ease US restrictions services his campaign promise to revive and revitalize America’s nuclear industry and meet competition from Russia and China. Saudi contracts are crucial for Westinghouse, a nuclear technology pioneer whose expertise is used in more than half of the world’s nuclear power plants. Westinghouse declared bankruptcy in March because of delays in two US projects.

A deal that would lift US restrictions in return for acquiring US technology could enmesh Saudi Arabia in bitter domestic political battles in Washington evolving around alleged Russian interference in the election that brought Mr. Trump to office. Controversial Trump campaign aide and short-lived national security advisor Michael Flynn sought to convince Israel to accept the kingdom’s nuclear program as part of his efforts to promote Russian nuclear interests in the Middle East.

Mr. Trump’s willingness, against the backdrop of uncertainty about his readiness to uphold US adherence to the 2015 agreement with Iran, could unleash an arms race in the Middle East and North Africa. Mr. Trump recently refused to certify to Congress that Iran was compliant with the agreement.

Dropping restrictions on Saudi enrichment could not only fuel Saudi-Iranian rivalry that has wreaked havoc across the region, but also encourage other recipients of US nuclear technology to demand similar rights. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt have accepted restrictions on enrichment in their nuclear deals with US companies as long as those limitations were imposed on all countries in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia has long been suspected of having an interest in ensuring that it would have the ability to develop a military nuclear capability if ever deemed necessary. For decades, Saudi cooperation with nuclear power Pakistan has been a source of speculation about the kingdom’s ambition.

Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, asserted that Saudi Arabia’s close ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s gave the kingdom arms’ length access to his country’s nuclear capabilities.

“By the 1980s, the Saudi ambassador was a regular guest of A. Q. Khan” or Abdul Qadeer Khan, the controversial nuclear physicist and metallurgical engineer who fathered Pakistan's atomic bomb,” Mr. Haqqani said in an interview.

Similarly, retired Pakistani Major General Feroz Hassan Khan, the author of a semi-official history of Pakistan’s nuclear program, has no doubt about the kingdom’s interest.

“Saudi Arabia provided generous financial support to Pakistan that enabled the nuclear program to continue, especially when the country was under sanctions," Mr. Khan said in a separate interview. Mr. Khan was referring to US sanctions imposed in 1998 because of Pakistan’s development of a nuclear weapons capability. He noted that at a time of economic crisis, Pakistan was with Saudi help able “to pay premium prices for expensive technologies.”

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said in a report earlier this year that it had uncovered evidence that future Pakistani “assistance would not involve Pakistan supplying Saudi Arabia with a full nuclear weapon or weapons; however, Pakistan may assist in other important ways, such as supplying sensitive equipment, materials, and know-how used in enrichment or reprocessing.”

The report said it was unclear whether “Pakistan and Saudi Arabia may be cooperating on sensitive nuclear technologies in Pakistan. In an extreme case, Saudi Arabia may be financing, or will finance, an unsafeguarded uranium enrichment facility in Pakistan for later use, either in a civil or military program,” the report said.

The report concluded that the nuclear agreement with Iran dubbed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had “not eliminated the kingdom’s desire for nuclear weapons capabilities and even nuclear weapons… There is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns about the ending of the JCPOA’s major nuclear limitations starting after year 10 of the deal or sooner if the deal fails,” the report said.

Rather than embarking on a covert program, the report predicted that Saudi Arabia would, for now, focus on building up its civilian nuclear infrastructure as well as a robust nuclear engineering and scientific workforce. This would allow the kingdom to take command of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle at some point in the future.

“The current situation suggests that Saudi Arabia now has both a high disincentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the short term and a high motivation to pursue them over the long term,” the Washington Institute said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

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Poland has sticker shock over ‘unacceptable’ price tag for Patriot buy

By: Jen Judson / Defense News.

US troops from the 5th Battalion of the 7th Air Defense Regiment emplace a launching station of the Patriot air and missile defence system at a test range in Sochaczew, Poland, on March 21, 2015 as part of a joint exercise with Polands troops of the 37th Missile Squadron of Air Defense that is to demonstrate the US Armys capacity to deploy Patriot systems rapidly within NATO territory. AFP PHOTO / JANEK SKARZYNSKI (Photo credit should read JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Poland has been pushing toward a purchase of a medium-range air-and-missile defense system for many years, settling on an unprecedented configuration of the Patriot system, but was surprised by the high price tag presented when the U.S. State Department cleared the sale of half of the Patriots Poland plans to buy.

According to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, when it notified Congress last month of the potential sale, the deal could cost the country $10.5 billion for four systems — that is roughly 37 billion zloties — which already exceeds by 7 billion zloties what Poland has said it would spend on the entire program.

The DSCA announcement only marks the progress in the first phase of the acquisition. Poland would like to see a second round of Patriot systems with a 360-degree detection capability and the first four retrofitted with the new radar in a subsequent deal.

“The high cost came as a surprise for us,” Bartosz Kownacki, secretary of state in Poland’s Ministry of National Defense, told Defense News in a Dec. 5 interview in Washington.

“The price is indeed unacceptable for us even in the view of the significant financial assets that we allocated for the technical modernization of the Polish Armed Forces,” he said through a translator. “We cannot simply afford to spend that much money on the procurement of two batteries and [Patriot Advanced Capability]-3 missiles for such an amount of money.”

The offer from the U.S. included 16 missile launchers, four sector radars and 208 PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) missiles.

The possible sale is a long time coming with Poland and the U.S. struggling through complicated negotiations over the past several years.

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Poland began its “Wisla” competition to procure a medium-range air-and-missile defense system many years ago, ultimately choosing Patriot in 2014 but, instead of simply buying what Raytheon had at the ready, the country decided it wanted a command-and-control system for Patriot that is still in development by the U.S. Army and Northrop Grumman called the Integrated Battle Command System (IBCS) along with a new radar down the road.

Instead of opting for a simple foreign military sale like Romania did recently when purchasing Patriot, Poland is, in a sense, creating its own integrated air-and-missile defense program.

Poland has also been adamant about creating quality defense work for its industrial base and has demanded certain offsets to ensure growth in its defense industry.

“We will be doing thorough analyses of the draft Letter of Agreement once it is sent to us,” Kownacki said. Looking at his watch, he said he expected the draft LOA could be sent at anytime and could even be delivered during the interview.

The cost estimate for the Patriot deal was the topic of discussions held this week during Kownacki’s trip to Washington. “We simply cannot accept such financial conditions, we will be working hard on reducing it, we will be conducting a line-by-line review,” he said. “We understand to reduce it more than one meeting will be required, maybe two or three meetings will be required to negotiate an acceptable, reasonable price.”

Kownacki added that there are other elements of the deal that came as a surprise as well. “For instance, the price of offset,” he said. While some companies involved with the deal gave reasonable prices for offset, “there is one company which presented an unacceptable offset for us and conditions we cannot accept,” he said.

And even with the companies that offered reasonable deals, Kownacki said, there will still be an effort to negotiate the price down further.

Kownacki added it’s possible that over the course of the negotiations it will turn out that some of the high prices were presented to the country due to a misunderstanding of its offset regulations. Poland changed its offset regulations and there are a number of elements that may not be understood, he said.

While the price tag for the first round of Patriots should be higher because of some up-front costs that cover the program as a whole, it should still be proportionately smaller than what Poland plans to spend over the entire life-cycle of the program, Kownacki said.

“Of course we can’t foresee by how much we will manage to lower the price, nonetheless, the U.S. Administration as well as the companies are aware that we need to reduce this price,” he added. “I am confident that we will manage to reach our goal, our objective, and we are currently finalizing the project so we are in the last stage of negotiations.”

Some analysts in Poland are more than skeptical that the price tag can be reduced enough so the country doesn’t exceed the 30 billion zloties for which its has budgeted to cover the entire program.

The U.S. cost estimate already exceeds the limit set by Poland by 20 percent, Marek Swierczynski, of Poland’s Polityka Insight, points out in a recent report. “So it will be good if the first phase negotiations will end at 30 billion zloties,” he writes.

He calculates that if the second phase of the program reflects the first phase in numbers, the costs could be “colossal.” For example, the price of one Lockheed Martin-manufactured PAC-3 MSE for the U.S. Army is $5.7 million and, with the offset Poland wants, the cost could rise to $8 million, Swierczynski notes. The PAC-3 order is already reduced to a minimum so there is little wiggle room for price there. And he also writes the low-cost SkyCeptor missile that Poland wants to manufacture as part of the program is currently a wild card, falling in the second phase of the procurement.

Swierczynski suggests that if Poland wants to get the cost down significantly “it has to say goodbye to the prospect of technological leaps in radar or rockets. And that was the most important thing in the industrial part of the Wisla program.”

The future 360-degree radar’s cost is also an unknown because Poland won’t know what it is buying for some time.

And adding IBCS to the Patriot system is an additional cost, yet it doesn’t appear to be the reason for the enormous cost of the first phase of the program. Northrop Grumman confirmed to Defense News that IBCS actually makes up less than 15 percent of the total acquisition cost for the Wisla FMS acquisition.

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Chicago Democrats: "Embarrassment of Riches" or War?

By Lenny Brody​

National Steering Committee member, Justice Party

The race for Congress in Chicago’s 4th Congressional District is on. Congressman Luis Gutierrez announced he will not run for re-election. He has anointed Chuy Garcia as his choice to succeed him. In the recent Chicago mayor’s race, Gutierrez supported Rahm Emanuel over Chuy Garcia. So what gives? Those on the ground in Chicago know this maneuver was orchestrated to get Garcia out of the 2019 race for mayor and clear the way for Emanuel. As soon as Garcia announced his candidacy for Congress, Bernie Sanders endorsed him.

It is unclear what Sanders knows about the Chicago situation. However, in the face of this sellout to the corporate Dems, Chicago’s most popular, progressive elected official, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, has stepped up to carry the political revolution forward. Rosa has announced his candidacy for Congress in the 4th CD.

While Garcia is relying on the established Democratic Party politicians, there has been an eruption of grassroots support for Rosa. Hundreds of volunteers are collecting thousands of signatures for Rosa. Supposed progressive organizations in Chicago that are leaning toward Garcia are finding their members flocking to Rosa’s campaign.

Establishment politicians and the media are trying to paint this race as an “embarrassment of riches” with two progressives running. But in reality a battle of a different kind is shaping up. Those who have been forced to fight because of the poverty growing in the U.S., because of the rise of right-wing politics, and because of the energy of the Sanders campaign, are not fooled by this Gutierrez-Garcia alliance. This battle has the potential to become a war for the soul of Chicago and perhaps this country. Activists in the electoral arena are facing a clear choice: Do we stick with the corrupt back room wheeling and dealing of the Democratic Party or do we stake out an independent truly progressive stance.

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Trump's Bizarre Rantings and Tweets Give Cover to His Fellow Authoritarian McConnell to Ram Through a Huge Tax Cut for the Rich

By Steven Rosenfeld / AlterNet.

Planned or not, Trump's provocations distract from McConnell's iron fist in the Senate.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Christopher Halloran

Wednesday’s headlines from Washington perfectly displayed the dysfunctional personalities and darkening politics that are turning America into a plutocracy ruled by sociopaths and authoritarians.

Whether or not it is coincidental, orchestrated or a bit of both, the latest reality-denying fantasy-embracing outbursts and provocations from President Trump gave Senate Republicans more cover to continue ramming through a tax bill in a manner that defies any pretense of representative government.

From a political perspective, Trump’s latest Twitter pile-on is a perfectly timed distraction from the dirty business unfolding in the Senate. First, he suggested the head of NBC be investigated for sexual misbehavior after the network fired morning show host Matt Lauer. That came after Trump said the infamous Access Hollywood video (in which he boasted of grabbing women) was not real. Then Trump retweeted some British anti-Muslim tweets, with the White House commenting that it didn't matter if they were true or not.

In much of 2016, the press became addicted to the daily outbursts from candidate Trump. It’s old news to recount his lies, distortions and vanities—everything that makes him anything but presidential. On Wednesday, however, this habit served Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell very well, by diverting attention from the GOP legislation plundering the middle-class and eviscerating safety nets so the rich can get richer.

But McConnell is a different breed of authoritarian than Trump. As Bernie Sanders, the Senate Budget Committee’s ranking member said in impassioned remarks on Tuesday, no Senate committee has held a hearing on the tax bill. The Budget Committee only had 15 minutes of “debate” before passing it on a party-line vote. The opposition party had no role in this process, which Wednesday moved to the Senate floor. This is not representative government, it’s mob rule, by and for the rich, mostly at blue states' expense.

“You know, how many hours have I sat here, and you’ve sat there, and we’ve seen all the charts and all the discussions, about how terrible the deficit is, and what it means leaving this burden to our kids and our grandchildren,” Sanders said, making a final appeal to the budget panel’s Republicans. “We’ve heard all of that rhetoric, year after year, and now we have a bill that raises the deficit by $1.4 trillion. And let me be very clear, I have not the slightest doubt, that if this bill, god forbid, is passed, the Republican leadership will come back and say, 'My god, we have to deal with the deficit, and that’s why we’re going to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and education.’”

Sanders’ plea went nowhere. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone. McConnell has shown he will embrace any tactic necessary to win—unless stopped by a fellow Republican like Arizona’s ailing John McCain during the Obamacare repeal vote. McConnell’s sabotage of Obama’s final Supreme Court nomination is Exhibit A. Partisan principles vaporize before McConnell’s mob rule dictates. And Wednesday, McConnell was helped by Trump’s outbursts and craziness, planned or not, which is even more sinister.

Trump’s pro wrestler-like provocations are part of an ongoing barrage to erase the past (Access Hollywood), rewrite history (who voted for him), dismiss fact, and embrace fiction. Holocaust historians like Timothy Snyder and experts on George Orwell like author Tom Ricks have said these impulses were all tell-tale characteristics of totalitarian rulers. The risk is not just that Trump is a sociopath with unique dysfunctions, but that he is indulging in attacks and fantasies as president.

The Washington Post’s ‘Plum Line’ columnist, Greg Sargent, noted these sociopathic features on Wednesday, warning that Trump is accumulating and asserting power, much like McConnell is asserting his rule in the Senate.

“Trump is not trying to persuade anyone of anything as much as he is trying to render reality irrelevant, and reduce the pursuit of agreement on it to just another part of the circus,” Sargent wrote. “He’s asserting a species of power—the power to evade constraints normally imposed by empirically verifiable facts, by expectations of consistency, and even by what reasoned inquiry deems merely credible. The more brazen or shameless, the more potent is the assertion of power.”

Trump’s attacks on the press are no accident, Sargent adds, but are calculated to damage the one institution that stands between elected officials and the public. Trump has ceaselessly attacked the media, toyed with coverage by introducing absurdities that get repeated everywhere—as mainstream media sees covering statements of record as a core responsibility. However, Trump’s dumpster dives also sully the media, who reflectively follow him into the gutter, Sargent notes.

“Here again, the absurdity is the whole point: In both the volume and outsize defiance of his lies, Trump is asserting the power to declare the irrelevance of verifiable, contradictory facts, and with them, the legitimate institutional role of the free press, which at its best brings us within striking distance of the truth,” Sargent writes.

“I don’t claim to know whether this is merely instinctual on Trump’s part, or part of a strategy,” he continues. “As Trump biographer Tim O’Brien puts it, Trump constantly ‘tells fables to himself’ and ‘about himself,’ and has long self-consciously regarded this as ‘one of his great skills.’ Trump has been doing it for so long that the separation between instinct and conscious technique has probably disappeared. But one thing is clear: Terms like ‘lying’ or ‘delusional’ don’t do justice to what we’re seeing here, and we have not yet seriously reckoned with its true nature and what it really means.”

What it means Wednesday, to start, is that Trump is providing a handy distraction for what may end up being the GOP’s first legislative victory of his presidency—a $1.4 trillion tax bill that will cause, as Sanders noted, 87 million middle-class households to see their taxes go up in the next decade while 62 percent of the benefits go to the top 1 percent.

But as bad as that tax legislation is, the specter of two breeds of totalitarians working in tandem—the authoritarian Republican Senate Leader and the sociopath commander-in-chief—is unprecedented in modern times. And their reign has just begun.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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Wind power blows past coal in Texas

By Ryan Maye Handy / Chron.

Photo: Michael Paulsen
A thick cloud of fog and morning light engulfs several 285ft tall 2.5 MW Clipper wind turbines at the BP Sherbino Mesa II Wind Farm, Monday, Feb. 20, 2012, in Fort Stockton. After cutting its solar program ... more

Wind power, by one important measure, surpassed coal last week to become the second-largest electricity source in Texas, yet another milestone in the state's march toward greater reliance on renewable energy.

When a 155-megawatt wind farm in West Texas began commercial operation this month, it pushed the state's wind power capacity to more than 20,000 megawatts, surpassing 19,800 megawatts of capacity from coal-fired power plants, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees 90 percent of the state's grid. One megawatt is enough to power 200 homes on a hot Texas day.

While ERCOT still gets most of its power from natural gas and coal, wind power generation now accounts for 15 percent of the power mix — up from just 2 percent a decade ago.

The imminent shutdown of three coal-fired power plants owned by Dallas-based Vistra Energy and the loss of their 4,000 megawatts of capacity will further tip the scales in wind's favor, said Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at the University of Texas' Energy Institute in Austin. In October, Vistra announced the pending shutdowns of its Monticello, Big Brown and Sandow coal plants, triggering the loss of more than 800 jobs and the closure of two coal mines. The shutdown of the Vistra plants are the first retirements of coal-fired power plants since Texas deregulated power markets in 2002.

"We are used to seeing wind numbers add, add, add," Rhodes said. "We are not used to seeing coal plants' numbers decreasing."

Texas power mix

Natural gas capacity: 45,800 MW
Wind power capacity: 20,102 MW
Coal capacity: 19,800 MW

Source: ERCOT

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