- The Washington Times - Monday, September 16, 2019

President Trump said Monday it was “certainly looking” like Iran was behind a weekend attack on one of the world’s largest oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, but he added that he wasn’t itching for war and was seeking definitive proof of who ordered the strikes, which rocked global energy markets and sent tensions soaring across the Middle East.

Iranian officials staunchly denied Monday that they were behind the drone and cruise missile attack, and the Houthi rebels of Yemen, who said they had carried out the devastating strikes, threatened more attacks in retaliation for the Saudi-led war seeking to roll back their movement.

Global reaction to U.S. intelligence suggesting Tehran’s involvement was cautious. World powers said they needed to see definitive proof that the drones were launched from Iranian soil.

Mr. Trump did send a warning shot Tehran’s way by saying the U.S. military is well-prepared to respond to the Saturday blitz on crucial Saudi oil assets, which tilted the Middle East further toward chaos.

“That was a very large attack, and it could be met with an attack many, many times larger very easily by our country. But we’re going to find out who definitively did it first,” Mr. Trump said in a White House meeting with Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

“I don’t want war with anybody,” Mr. Trump said. “I’m somebody that would like not to have war.”

The aerial attack hit the Saudis’ main crude oil processing facility and forced the country to temporarily halt production of roughly 5.7 million barrels per day, or more than 5% of the world’s crude output, sending oil prices soaring more than 10% Monday.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in Turkey that the drone strikes were a “legitimate defense and counterattack” by the Houthis given what he called Saudi-led aggression.

“This problem has its root in invading Yemen,” said Mr. Rouhani, who was meeting in Ankara with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Saudi-led coalition is “bombing Yemen on a daily basis,” Mr. Rouhani said.

Mr. Trump said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top officials will travel soon to Saudi Arabia as officials figure out whether Tehran was responsible. Mr. Trump made his first foreign trip as president to Riyadh and has boosted Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as his key Arab ally to contain regional rival Iran.

Some administration aides, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, directly accused Iran of carrying out the attacks, but Mr. Trump war more circumspect in two sessions with White House reporters.

“It’s certainly looking that way, at this moment,” Mr. Trump said in the Oval Office. “Soon, as we find out definitively, we’ll let you know, but it does look that way.”

Satellite imagery

U.S. officials have said that satellite imagery shows almost 20 points of impact consistent with the attack having come from the north — the direction of Iran or Iraq — rather than from Yemen on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. Iraqi officials, who talked with Mr. Pompeo this weekend, said they were assured the attacks did not emanate from inside their country, although pro-Iranian militias are a powerful force in the country.

NBC News reported Monday that three unidentified U.S. officials said the drones originated in Iran and that at least one “key ally” in the region was told of the intelligence conclusions.

Also Monday, the Saudis said Iranian weapons were used in the attacks. The Houthis, who have been supported by Iran diplomatically and militarily, have carried out drone attacks on Saudi targets, though the strike Saturday was far more sophisticated and destructive than any previous sortie.

“I think you won’t be surprised to see who did it,” Mr. Trump told reporters.

In the meantime, the oil markets were struggling to gauge the size of the disruption to production in one of the world’s critical oil producers.

Benchmark Brent crude prices gained nearly 20% in the first moments of trading Monday before settling down to over 10% higher as trading continued. A barrel of Brent traded up $6.45 to $66.67.

That spike represented the biggest percentage value jump in Brent crude since the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition expelled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait.

U.S. benchmark West Texas crude climbed about 10%. Prices for U.S. gasoline and heating oil also rose.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said he welcomed Mr. Trump’s decision to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to mitigate the impact if needed.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, criticized Mr. Trump for a tweet over the weekend in which he said he was waiting for guidance from the Saudi government on how to proceed.

“Trump awaits instructions from his Saudi masters. Having our country act as Saudi Arabia’s bitch is not ‘America First,’” tweeted Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii Democrat and 2020 presidential candidate.

Mr. Trump said he didn’t promise to protect the Saudis or make other guarantees. He also said the kingdom will have to accept the bulk of responsibility for any retaliation.

“The fact is that the Saudis are going to have a lot of involvement in this, if we decide to do something,” Mr. Trump said. “They’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said U.S. armed forces could play a key role.

“Iran should not underestimate the United States’ resolve. Any attack against U.S. forces deployed abroad must be met with an overwhelming response. No targets are off the table,” said Sen. James E. Risch, Idaho Republican.

Mixed messages

Defense Secretary Mark Esper walked a fine line in his statement, which accused Iran of trying to “undermine” the international order and pledged support for the Saudi military without directly accusing Tehran of carrying out the drone strike.

The statement was a sign of the administration’s struggles with coordinating a single message and determining exactly what happened. The difficulty was heightened last week by the ouster of National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, a noted hawk on Iran.

Earlier Monday, Mr. Perry told reporters in Austria that the U.S. “wholeheartedly condemns Iran’s attack on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we call on other nations to do the same. … It is unacceptable, and they must be held responsible.”

Mr. Pompeo likewise pointed to Iran. Soon after the attacks, he tweeted: “Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.”

Separately, a top aide to Vice President Mike Pence said Mr. Trump’s widely cited tweet this weekend that the U.S. military was “locked and loaded” to respond to the Saudi attack should not be taken literally.

The president’s language is “a reflection” that his administration is advancing policies that protect the U.S. “from these sorts of oil shots,” Marc Short told reporters at the White House on Monday morning.

“I think that ‘locked and loaded’ is a broad term that talks about the realities that” the U.S. is “safer and more secure domestically from energy independence,” he said.

This year has been marked by rising tensions in the Persian Gulf, including seized oil tankers, fights over airspace and Iran’s downing of an American drone that nearly sparked a U.S. military strike in response.

“Remember when Iran shot down a drone, saying knowingly that it was in their ‘airspace’ when, in fact, it was nowhere close. They stuck strongly to that story knowing that it was a very big lie,” Mr. Trump tweeted Monday. “Now they say that they had nothing to do with the attack on Saudi Arabia. We’ll see?”

Even so, Mr. Trump muddied the picture Monday by insisting he was still open to dialogue with Mr. Rouhani, even as he talks tough and applies “maximum pressure” on Tehran.

The U.S. is reapplying crippling economic sanctions after Mr. Trump last year withdrew from the international 2015 nuclear pact with Iran, and Iranian officials Monday said flatly that a rumored meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly gathering in New York next week was off the table as long as the sanctions remain in place.

Mr. Trump, however, said diplomacy is “never exhausted.”

“I know they want to make a deal,” he said of Iran, whose economy has suffered mightily from the U.S. pressure campaign. “At some point, it will work out.”

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