U.S. Points At Iran In Saudi Oil Facility Attack And Trump Hints At Military Action
While the world continues to evaluate the impact of Saturday's attack on a Saudi oil facility, tensions in the Persian Gulf are increasing.
The United States is quietly pushing the argument that Iran was behind the weekend attack on a major Saudi oil facility, leading President Trump to take to Twitter to hint at military action against the Islamic Republic:
The Trump administration intensified its focus on Iran Sunday as the likely culprit behind attacks on important Saudi Arabian oil facilities over the weekend, with officials citing intelligence assessments to support the accusation and President Trump warning that he was prepared to take military action.
The government released satellite photographs showing what officials said were at least 17 points of impact at several Saudi energy facilities from strikes they said came from the north or northwest. That would be consistent with an attack coming from the direction of the northern Persian Gulf, Iran or Iraq, rather than from Yemen, where the Iranian-backed Houthi militia that claimed responsibility for the strikes operates.
Administration officials, in a background briefing for reporters as well as in separate interviews on Sunday, also said a combination of drones and cruise missiles — “both and a lot of them,” as one senior United States official put it — might have been used. That would indicate a degree of scope, precision and sophistication beyond the ability of the Houthi rebels alone.
Mr. Trump, however, did not name Iran, saying he needed to consult with Saudi Arabia first.
“Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked,” he said in a tweet on Sunday evening. “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday that Iran was behind what he called “an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply” and asserted that there was “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.” He did not, however, say where they came from, and the Saudis refrained from directly blaming Iran.
The administration’s determination that Iran played a direct role in the attack marked a significant escalation in months of back-and-forth tensions between the United States and Iran. It raised questions about how Washington might retaliate — and why Iran would have risked such a confrontation.
Mr. Trump’s warning echoed one he made in June after Iran shot down an American surveillance drone. He said then that the military had been “cocked and loaded” for a strike against Iran.
He said he called off the strike with 10 minutes to spare when a general told him that 150 people would probably die in the attack, which he said would have been disproportionate.
Administration officials said on Sunday they would seek to declassify more intelligence to buttress their case against Iran in the coming days.
The satellite photographs released on Sunday did not appear as clear cut as officials suggested, with some appearing to show damage on the western side of the facilities, not from the direction of Iran or Iraq.
American officials said that more than 17 weapons were directed at the Saudi facilities, but not all reached their targets. Forensic analyses of the recovered weapons could answer questions about what they were, who manufactured them and who launched them.
As the Times goes on to note, the Iranians have denied any involvement in the attacks and have accused the President and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of recklessly increasing tensions in the region. At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that this type of attack would be consistent with recent Iranian actions:
Squeezed by sweeping American sanctions on its oil sales, Iran has sought to inflict a similar pain on its adversaries — threatening the ability of Saudi Arabia and other American allies in the Persian Gulf to sell oil and holding out the possibility of driving up international oil prices in the months before President Trump seeks re-election.
“Iran wants to show that instead of a win-lose contest, Iran can turn this into a lose-lose dynamic for everyone,” said Ali Vaez, head of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group.
Yet Iran has stopped short of carrying out the kind of direct, open attack on United States allies that might trigger a military response, preferring to let regional allies do the work or at least share the blame.
“Plausible deniability is a trademark of Iran’s pushback strategy,” Mr. Vaez said.
The combination of military pressure and deniability also fits with a strategy of increasing Iran’s bargaining power before possible talks at the United Nations this month.
How the Trump administration responds remains to be seen. Breaking with a pattern under both Democratic and Republican presidents, the Trump administration has said that it intends to hold Iran fully responsible for any attacks carried out by the Houthis or other regional allies that the administration deems Iranian proxies.
Previous administrations have said that Iran was arming and training allied groups such as the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and Shiite militias in Syria or Iraq to extend its regional influence. Yet in the past, the United States has generally declined to retaliate against Iran militarily even when those groups have attacked the American military, as Iranian-backed Shiite militias did during American occupation of Iraq.
Here are Trump’s tweets on the matter:
Trump’s last tweet is contradicted by a comment he made just a few days ago where he said he would potentially be willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in connection with next weeks’ meetings at the United Nations. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated that point just a few days later, although it’s worth noting that both comments came before Saturday’s attack. For their part, though, the Iranians have said that no such meeting would take place unless the United States lifted at least some of the sanctions it reimposed after President Trump repudiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), something which seems rather unlikely at this point.
In the meantime, the attack is having the expected impact on global oil and gasoline futures markets, with overnight trading showing prices increasing sharply. As a result, this is having an expected, albeit somewhat muted, negative impact on world stock markets as well as stock futures here in the United States. The question that remains unanswered is what the impact on global oil markets will be over the long term. There still isn’t much indication of the extent to which the attack has damaged Saudi Arabia’s ability to keep oil flowing and it’s unknown how long it will take for the facility to recover from the attack. The answer to that question will have a huge impact on global oil and gas markets and on the world economy.
As for the question of what impact all of this will have on tension in the Persian Gulf region, that too remains to be seen with the ultimate question being whether any definitive conclusions can be reached regarding responsibility for the attack. According to some reports, at least some of the drones involved in the attack may have been recovered near the attack site. If that is true, then it may be possible to trace back ownership, determine where the drones were launched from, something that has not been confirmed yet, and who may have launched them. The answers to those and many other questions will determine if this is a short-term crisis or something that leads to more significant events.