- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Trump administration Thursday tried to pull back from the brink of confrontation with Tehran even as top Iranian officials warned they would respond to an attack with “all-out war,” as the Pentagon suggested that Saudi Arabia will take the lead in determining exactly how and when to respond.

Stressing diplomacy in the aftermath of last weekend’s attack on Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure, top American officials said they are still seeking a peaceful resolution to a simmering crisis in the Middle East. Officials also made clear that they are content to allow Riyadh, not Washington, to lay the blame at the feet of the Iranian government.

The administration said it believes that Iran was responsible for the assault, but officials deliberately stopped short of explicitly saying the Iranian government itself ordered the assault on the Abqaiq oil facility or that the drones and cruise missiles were launched from Iranian soil. The unprecedented attack, which Yemen’s Houthi rebels claim they carried out, temporarily cut Saudi Arabia’s oil production in half and is fueling a spike in global gas prices.

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For the Trump administration, three years of tough talk and tough actions against Iran have suddenly given way to calls for strong action by the United Nations and faith in an international “coalition” that the U.S. says is the best way to hold Tehran accountable. The episode also has shone a fresh spotlight on the administration’s deference to Saudi Arabia even as critics, including some Republicans, press the president to show strength.

Saudi Arabia also has avoided directly accusing Iran’s government of carrying out the attack, likely out of fear that such words could spark more violence and potentially lead to war between the region’s top two powers.

Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Germany, told a German radio interviewer that his country has not ruled out any options once it determines definitively who carried out the attack.

“Everything is on the table,” he said.

Iran, by contrast, seems eager to keep ratcheting up the rhetoric. In an interview with CNN, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif declared that a strike by either the U.S. or Saudi Arabia would lead to “all-out war.”

“I think it is important for the Saudi government to understand what they’re trying to achieve. Do they want to fight Iran until the last American soldier? Is that their aim?” he said. “They can be assured that this won’t be the case … because Iran will defend itself.”

Target list

At the Pentagon, top military officials reportedly are refining a set of possible targets in Iran should President Trump decide to strike. Officials also said they continue to reassess American military personnel in the Middle East, perhaps suggesting that the administration is considering options to bolster regional security.

But publicly they seemed to defer to Riyadh in laying out a plan of action over the crucial next few days.

“The job of the Defense Department is to provide the president with options,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan R. Hoffman told reporters during a rare press briefing Thursday. “We’re being deliberative about this, and we’ll wait until the final assessment [of the Abqaiq attack] is complete with the Saudis and they’ve made their declaration” about who was responsible and how Riyadh intends to move forward.

Mr. Hoffman said “all indications” are that Iran was responsible for the attack, but many U.S. allies say they are waiting to see definitive proof.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to cool tensions and made clear that the president, despite his sometimes fiery tweets, wants to avoid direct conflict with Iran and that it was Tehran that was guilty of bellicose rhetoric.

“We’d like a peaceful resolution, indeed. I think we’ve demonstrated that,” he told reporters after a day of meetings with top officials of the United Arab Emirates, a key Saudi ally. “I was here in an act of diplomacy. While the foreign minister of Iran is threatening all-out war and to fight to the last American, we’re here to build out a coalition aimed at achieving peace and a peaceful resolution to this. That’s my mission set, what President Trump certainly wants me to work to achieve, and I hope that the Islamic Republic of Iran sees it the same way.”

Bolton criticism

Critics say the administration’s inaction has led Iran to believe it could launch a brazen attack on a key U.S. ally and on the world’s energy supply and effectively get away with it.

Ousted White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton reportedly blasted Mr. Trump’s Iran policy this week. Speaking at a closed-door luncheon hosted by the Gatestone Institute, a conservative think tank, he said the president’s unwillingness to respond this summer when Iran shot down a U.S. drone led directly to more Iranian aggression, according to Politico.

Mr. Bolton also reportedly blasted the administration’s penchant for the kind of diplomacy that Mr. Pompeo undertook this week in the Middle East.

Mr. Bolton’s comments underscore the deep divide within the Republican Party over how to rein in Iran. Conservative foreign policy hawks such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming called for a strong response, but others praised Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo for taking their time and recognizing that it was Saudi Arabia, not the U.S., that was targeted.

“They did not attack a U.S. military asset. That’s important here. It’s Saudi,” Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Fox News on Thursday. “We shouldn’t go alone on this. Neither the United States or Saudis should go this alone. … I think the administration right now is playing it right.”

The Defense Department confirmed Thursday that U.S. military personnel remain in Saudi Arabia to help conduct an in-depth investigation of the attack site. A United Nations forensics team is also examining evidence. Officials gave no indication of when that investigation might conclude.

Saudi officials this week displayed remnants of drones and missiles that they said were used in the Saturday assault, and Riyadh and Washington have dismissed claims by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, engaged in a bitter military campaign against a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war, that they were behind the attack.

The Abqaiq attack also has raised questions about whether the U.S. has the necessary military assets in the region to defend against further Iranian attacks, though Pentagon officials insisted they were prepared.

“We certainly believe we have the forces in the region we need to protect our forces and deter potential future threats from Iran,” Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.

Pressed on whether the Pentagon is rethinking its approach, Col. Ryder said, “We’re constantly reassessing the region and the environment.”

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