- The Washington Times
Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Washington and Riyadh locked arms Wednesday, accusing Iran of plotting last weekend’s devastating attack on Saudi oil infrastructure and calling the assault “an act of war” that will not go unanswered.

Even as top Iranian officials vehemently denied involvement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Jeddah to huddle with officials and publicly make the case that Tehran must be held accountable for an apparent drone and missile strike that temporarily knocked 50% of Saudi Arabia’s oil production offline and sparked what analysts say will be a major spike in global gas prices.

President Trump insisted the U.S. military has “many options,” but there was a sense that Washington was still undecided on how to respond, what to target and how to honor Mr. Trump’s repeated pledges not to get the U.S. bogged down in more Middle East wars.

Hours before Mr. Pompeo touched down in the kingdom, Saudi officials displayed pieces of the drones and cruise missiles that they said were used to hit the Abqaiq facility. They disputed claims that the attack was the work of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen — not Tehran itself.

The Houthis are engaged in a brutal civil war with a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, but military analysts said the rebel group was not likely to have the arsenal and the sophistication to carry out the Saturday attack.

U.S. and Saudi officials stopped short of explicitly claiming that the attack was launched from Iranian soil, raising questions about how much hard evidence either side has and fueling the perception that both countries are unsure how to move forward.

President Trump came under increasing pressure from prominent foreign policy hawks in the Republican Party to respond with a military strike or risk emboldening Iran on the world stage ahead of the United Nations General Assembly gathering in New York next week.

“If we have to do something, we’ll do it,” the president told reporters in California, explicitly referencing the possibility of direct military action against Iran.

“We’re really at a point now where we know very much what happened,” Mr. Trump said, but “there is a certain guarantee factor” in nailing down hard evidence.

France and the United Nations said they were dispatching their own analysts to Saudi Arabia to analyze the attack. Private analysts said the range of the attacks and some of the weaponry displayed clearly ruled out the Houthis as the perpetrators.

The salvos “did not come from Yemen,” Michael Elleman, a missile defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Associated Press. “I think the intel reporting seems to be pretty consistently saying that no, this did not come from Yemen, even though they claimed credit for it.”

Mr. Trump said he had ordered further Treasury Department sanctions on Iran, but he did not elaborate.

The U.S. is likely to find it difficult to recruit allies for a military move against Iran. Multiple European countries, China and Russia say Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran and the resumption of harsh economic sanctions only heightened the tensions.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pompeo held a high-stakes meeting with his Saudi counterparts at a crucial moment for both countries. Analysts say Saudi Arabia’s credibility hangs in the balance as it considers how to respond to Iran, its chief political and sectarian rival in the region, while steering clear of any action that could ignite a broader war in the Middle East or spark a conflict that would further destabilize international energy markets.

Top Saudi officials seemed well aware of the tightrope they must walk in laying blame at the feet of Iran. In a widely anticipated news conference, Saudi military spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki said the attack was “launched from the north” and was “unquestionably sponsored” by Iran. He did not, however, say directly that Iranian leaders ordered the attack or that the strike was initiated inside Iranian borders.

Col. al-Malki walked amid pieces of more than two dozen missiles and drones that he said were used in the assault and said they bore a strong resemblance to weapons frequently used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“This is the kind of weapon the Iranian regime and the Iranian IRGC are using against the civilian object and facilities infrastructure,” he said.

Mr. Pompeo dubbed the assault an “Iranian attack” and an “act of war.” He pinned the blame squarely on Tehran and dismissed the notion that Houthis in Yemen, who have used Iranian-supplied equipment in the past, were responsible.

“This is an attack of a scale we’ve just not seen before,” he said.

“It’s not the case that you can subcontract out the devastation of 5% of the world’s global energy supply and think that you can absolve yourself from responsibility,” Mr. Pompeo said. “Were it the case that the Houthis’ fraudulent claim was accurate, were that true — it’s not, but were that true — it doesn’t change the fingerprints of [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] as having put at risk the global energy supply.”

Delicate dance

A potential U.S. response to Iran is just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Regional analysts say Saudi Arabia faces a set of complex geopolitical factors that could impact its security, its economy and its reputation as the crucial hinge supplier for the global oil market.

On the security front, analysts say, Riyadh has likely made a behind-the-scenes calculation that any military response must be led by its own forces, not by those of the U.S.

Although U.S. assistance could be vital, it’s likely the Saudis would insist on taking the lead militarily in order to protect their standing as a top Middle Eastern power.

“If they were going to do something, they would want to do it right and not be embarrassed,” said James Carafano, a security and foreign policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “In that part of the world, you want to look strong. The worst thing you can possibly do is look weak. If Saudi Arabia is going to do something, it would be better if they did it [themselves].”

But the Saudis, with powerful Iranian proxies stationed on their borders in Iraq and Yemen, are also well aware that a confrontation with Tehran could quickly spiral out of control. The careful wording of Saudi public statements in recent days seems designed to buy Riyadh more time to figure out how to retaliate.

“The Saudis are usually risk averse about this kind of thing,” Mr. Carafano said. “They’re not the Israelis. If it were the Israelis, there would already be smoke coming out of a hole somewhere in Iran.”

Deeper concerns are also at play. Part of Iran’s grand strategy in its attacks, analysts say, is to weaken Saudi Arabia economically as a method of softening links between Riyadh and Washington. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia, as the leader of Sunni Islam, and Iran, the world’s most powerful Shiite-majority nation, only intensified the conflict.

Saudi Arabia remains Iran’s top foe in the Middle East and has been embraced by Mr. Trump as the key Arab ally in isolating and containing Iran. Inflicting pain on Saudi Arabia, analysts say, could change that dynamic.

“Iran now has two imperatives,” leading international affairs strategist George Friedman wrote this week. “It must weaken the anti-Iran coalition, protecting its allies in the region, and it must generate pressure on the United States to ease U.S. pressure on the Iranian economy. The weak link in the coalition is Saudi Arabia.

“The strike at the Saudi oil refinery was well thought out on all levels,” Mr. Friedman wrote in a piece for Geopolitical Futures. “Not only did it demonstrate that the Saudi oil industry was vulnerable to Iranian attack but the attack significantly reduced Saudi oil production, inflicting real pain. It is not clear how long it might take to bring production back online, but even if it is done quickly, the memory will not fade, and if it takes time, the financial impact will hurt.”

There are also fears that the attack could impact the looming initial public offering of the state-run Saudi Aramco oil giant, expected to be one of the largest public listings in history.

Saudi officials, however, have said there are no plans to delay the offering and have issued statements this week that production at the damaged oil refineries can be restored relatively quickly.

Renewed tensions

For the Trump White House, last weekend’s attack again brought tensions with Iran to the boiling point — barely a week after John R. Bolton, the president’s hawkish national security adviser, was ousted, in part over differences on how to deal with Tehran.

Iranian officials Wednesday reportedly used Swiss intermediaries to deliver a note to the Trump administration. In the message, they denied responsibility for the Abqaiq incident while vowing to respond in kind if attacked.

“If any action takes place against Iran, the action will be faced by Iran’s answer immediately,” the note read in part, according to state-run media in Iran.

“These accusations are wholly, seriously and firmly rejected,” Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami, Iran’s defense minister, told reporters in Tehran. “It’s easy to accuse someone without providing any proof. It has no value.”

But the Abqaiq attack is the latest in a string of suspected Iranian provocations that have sent regional tensions soaring. Over the summer, Iran downed an American drone that it said crossed into Iranian airspace — a claim the U.S. denied. Mr. Trump said he was minutes away from approving a military strike on Iranian targets in response to the downing but ultimately decided against it.

Iran in recent months also targeted multiple commercial oil ships traveling off its coast after the U.S. imposed a global embargo on Iranian oil exports. Iran also now boasts that it is disregarding key provisions of the 2015 international nuclear deal and is once again enriching uranium to near weapons-grade levels.

Alleged Iranian threats to U.S. forces based in Iraq led to the deployment of additional American troops, planes and ships to the Middle East this summer.

But even against that backdrop, Mr. Trump had openly mulled a face-to-face meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani next week at the U.N. General Assembly gathering of world leaders in New York. Such a meeting would have been historic and could have been an opening to renewed diplomatic talks.

Now, however, it’s unclear whether Iranian officials will even be allowed into the U.S. Iranian media reported Wednesday that Mr. Rouhani and Foreign Affairs Minister Javad Zarif have yet to be granted visas.

State Department officials told The Associated Press that they would not discuss “private diplomatic correspondence” with Iran, but Mr. Trump signaled that Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif will ultimately be allowed into the U.S.

“I would let them come,” the president told reporters.

But the White House is facing renewed pressure from top Republicans to show strength through force, particularly with Mr. Bolton no longer at his side.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, called for a “response to deter deterrence” and said Iran will not cease provocations on its own.

“If they do want a war, they will lose it. It is clear to me they’re not much worried about a war,” he said. “If you were worried about a war, you wouldn’t bomb your neighbor’s refineries. So they believe there’s no stomach in the region or in the United States to confront their aggressive behavior. Radical Islam left unattended, we know what happens. We’ve seen that movie before here at home.”

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican in the House, said the U.S. should pursue “proportional” military responses against Tehran.

⦁ Tom Howell Jr. and Lauren Meier contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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