- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Trump administration dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia and hinted at a crackdown on Iran for its suspected role in drone attacks that decimated oil fields east of Riyadh over the weekend, saying it has no intention of backing off its maximum pressure campaign and may go beyond economic sanctions to “restore deterrence” in dealing with Tehran.

President Trump also said he does not intend to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly’s session in New York next week. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said U.S. and Iranian officials will not meet at any level until Washington lifts harsh economic sanctions on his country.

Crude oil prices moderated Tuesday as Saudi Arabia’s energy minister said lost production could be made up in relatively short order and the affected production sites would be fully restored by the end of the month.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed credit for the attacks, but the question of how they have changed the region’s political and military calculus continued to confront the U.S. and its allies.

“I never rule anything out, but I prefer not meeting [Mr. Rouhani],” Mr. Trump told reporters en route to California aboard Air Force One.

U.S. and Saudi intelligence agencies were attempting to pin down blame for the oil field attacks Saturday, though Mr. Trump and his top advisers, citing available evidence, have not been shy about suggesting Iran played a key role.

Vice President Mike Pence said the administration refuses to ease off the “maximum pressure” campaign it imposed on Iran after Mr. Trump last year withdrew from the 2015 international nuclear pact with Iran. The pressure has put a severe strain on the Iranian economy.

“Know this: If Iran conducted this latest attack to pressure President Trump to back off, they will fail,” Mr. Pence said in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “America is ready to defend our interests.”

Speaking later to senators on Capitol Hill, Mr. Pence said any U.S. response will be aimed at deterring Iranian aggression, though he didn’t specify tactics.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and defense hawk, said he hopes the U.S. sends a wake-up call to Iran. He said Tehran was emboldened when Mr. Trump called off retaliatory action in June at the last minute after Iran shot down a U.S. drone.

“Iranians saw the president’s restraint as weakness and not as space for diplomacy. So clearly they got the wrong message that inaction on the drone event, I think, has reinforced the narrative that the administration, the Western world [and] the region really isn’t going to do much about provocations,” he said.

Yemen’s rebels have assaulted Saudi oil installations in the past in response to a Saudi-led military campaign against them, but analysts said Saturday’s attacks were far more sophisticated, accurate and damaging than the previous strikes. That led many to suspect Iran — the Saudis’ chief regional rival for power — of carrying out the attacks. ABC News said U.S. intelligence reports are focusing on a base in southwestern Iran as a possible launch site.

In Yemen, a spokesman for the rebels said Tuesday that the United Arab Emirates, which has participated the Saudi-led military campaign, could be the next target for drone attacks on its oil assets.

Democratic doubts

Democrats condemned the attacks but said Mr. Trump’s erratic policymaking was at least partially to blame. They said the president’s rejection of the nuclear deal left the U.S. without key allies in the fight and that his tilt toward Saudi Arabia threatened to draw the U.S. military even deeper into an unstable region. With some questioning the administration’s apparent readiness to blame Iran for the drone strikes, top Democrats warned that the administration must secure congressional approval for any major military action against Tehran.

“While we don’t know who is responsible for the attacks in Saudi Arabia, we do know that without a clear strategy to de-escalate tensions with Iran, the situation will only get worse,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat. “As the administration determines next steps, I’m compelled to remind them that the Constitution is clear: Unless the United States is attacked first, the president needs authorization from Congress before attacking Iran, even if he is acting in support of one of our partners.”

Mr. Pompeo is set to touch down in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday to discuss a response to the attacks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, and “coordinate efforts to counter Iranian aggression in the region.”

Later in the week, he will head to the United Arab Emirates to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry condemned the series of attacks as an “egregious crime” that threatens international peace and security. It also said the blitz was in line with previous attacks on pumping stations for the state oil company Saudi Aramco using “Iranian weapons.”

Saudi officials said a much-anticipated public stock sale of a portion of Saudi Aramco is moving forward despite the weekend’s supply disruptions.

“The kingdom will take the appropriate measures based on the results of the investigation, to ensure its security and stability,” the ministry said. “The kingdom affirms that it has the capability and resolve to defend its land and people, and to forcefully respond to these aggressions.”

The Abqaiq oil processing plant hit in the Saturday assault is the largest in the world, and the rapid drop in production had immediate repercussions around the globe. U.S. gasoline prices are expected to rise by as much as 25 cents per gallon over the next month, the auto advocacy group AAA announced Tuesday.

Short-lived impact

But having surveyed the damage, Saudi officials insisted Tuesday that any impact will be short-lived. Roughly 50% of the Abqaiq facility’s production capacity is already back online, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman told reporters.

“Where would you find a company in this whole world that went through such a devastating attack and came out like a phoenix?” he said.

The plant is expected to be back to its pre-attack level — about 4.9 million barrels of oil each day — by the end of the month.

The news had a calming effect on oil prices, which shot up by a whopping 14% Monday. By Tuesday afternoon, Brent crude prices had dropped 6.4%, closing at $64.55 per barrel.

Mr. Trump said Tuesday that he doesn’t think he will need to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, an option he placed on the table after the attacks disrupted oil production and increased crude prices.

“I don’t think I need to, but I’m willing to do it. We’re the undisputed champion of energy,” he said. “So I don’t believe I need to, but if we want to use strategic oil reserves, I would open them up.”

Republicans said Mr. Trump deserves credit for making sure the U.S. is no longer dependent on foreign suppliers to meet its domestic energy needs.

“This is a difficult situation, that’s putting it mildly, but as I look to where we are today, I think we also recognize that the impact that we are seeing could be worse,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the same is true of military readiness. He urged Democrats not to delay critical spending bills that support the armed forces.

“Iran’s violent aggression highlights the need for vigilance and for strength,” he said. “All of this is needlessly more difficult if we don’t do our job and fund the military’s modernization and readiness.”

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