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Cardin: Saudi deal would be a ‘game changer,’ but ‘issues’ must be addressed

The new Foreign Relations Committee chair said that a deal should address human rights issues, and that there must be strong ‘guardrails’ for a security agreement and civil nuclear power

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Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD)

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Thursday that a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be a “game changer” for the region but that there are a number of sensitive issues that a deal with the kingdom would have to address.

“I’m very excited about this, because I do think it [would be] incredible [for] the U.S. foreign policy and national security,” Cardin said in a briefing with reporters yesterday. “I think that there is a recognition that if this is going to happen, there’s going to be some meaningful changes in the Middle East, and I find that extremely exciting.”

Cardin said the continued lack of accountability for the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamaal Khashoggi — a Maryland resident — and other Saudi human rights issues must be addressed. He opened the meeting by highlighting the case of a humanitarian worker imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since 2018, a situation he has brought up in discussions around a potential deal.

He also said that there must be “guardrails” on a security agreement with Saudi Arabia, as well as in Riyadh’s demands for domestic nuclear enrichment.

“I would want the help of our security experts we have on our staff, as to how we can ensure that any U.S. commitments that are made in this agreement are totally consistent with our national security objectives, and we have control over our own military operations and things like that,” Cardin said.

He added that establishing a tighter partnership with Saudi Arabia would hopefully help make the kingdom a more reliable security partner — an outcome he said had been achieved with the United Arab Emirates through the Abraham Accords. He said that a security agreement would lessen the risks that Saudi Arabia would misuse U.S. military equipment, which has been a major concern for lawmakers around such sales in the past.

On the nuclear issue, Cardin said he would like to see the “strongest possible” safeguards, in line with the “123 agreements” in place with other U.S. partners, allowing no risk that the program would be misused or support a weapons program.

Asked about administration efforts to establish a more limited, informal nuclear deal with Iran, Cardin, who voted against the original 2015 Iran nuclear deal, emphasized that he believes the U.S. is in a “much more dangerous situation” now because the Trump administration withdrew from the deal. “You can’t use the gold standard anymore,” Cardin said. “You’ve got to figure out, where do you go from this day forward?”

But, he said, “from what I’ve been told [Iran is] just not interested” in an agreement, “which means we have to be monitoring and making sure they don’t move forward with their nuclear program.”

The indictment of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), which alleges a corrupt relationship between the former Foreign Relations Committee chairman and Egypt, has prompted calls for the U.S. to withhold aid to Egypt pending further investigation.

The administration recently decided to allow $235 million in aid to flow to Egypt in spite of congressionally imposed human rights conditions. Cardin said that this aid is not “out the door at this moment”; he said he is hoping to meet with the administration on the subject and the committee is examining its options. Cardin personally opposed waiving the human rights conditions on aid to Egypt.

Menendez, exercising his powers as Foreign Relations Committee chair, was the main obstacle to the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. Cardin said he hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll continue Menendez’s hold on this sale, pending a briefing and discussion with the administration. He described the situation as complicated, given concerns about Greece’s military capacity and the human rights situation in Turkey.

Cardin said he did not believe the issue was urgent, and that he’ll have time to consider it.

He also said he had heard from Turkish officials recently that they plan to approve Sweden’s accession into NATO in the early part of October.

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