- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2019

NEW YORK — Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat said Tuesday that the major attack this month on his country’s oil infrastructure was “an act of war” by Iran, but he downplayed the notion that Saudi and U.S. forces are preparing to counter with military strikes of their own against Iran.

“We want to make sure that we avoid war at all cost, but we are not going to sit there with our hands tied while the Iranians continue to attack us,” Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly.

President Trump gave a similar message Tuesday that peace remains an option for Iran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the world gathering Wednesday as diplomats seek to determine whether Tehran will further escalate — or perhaps ease — tensions that have soared since the Sept. 14 attack on Saudi Arabia triggered a spike in global oil prices.

The prospect of a face-to-face meeting this week between Mr. Trump and Mr. Rouhani appeared dim Tuesday, although the Iranian president said he would consider a discussion if the Trump administration drops sanctions it has imposed on Tehran since pulling the U.S. out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last year. The Iranian president told Fox News that a meeting was unlikely because no diplomatic or policy preparations had been made to clear the ground for such a discussion.

Mr. Trump made clear in his U.N. General Assembly speech Tuesday that he has no plan to ease any sanctions after the attack on Saudi Arabia. “As long as Iran’s menacing behavior continues, sanctions will not be lifted,” the president said.

But there are indications that Mr. Trump is scrambling behind the scenes to try to develop a back channel to Mr. Rouhani that might at least defuse the heightened tensions.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said Tuesday that Mr. Trump had personally asked him during a closed-door meeting to help mediate and that he responded by immediately reaching out to Mr. Rouhani.

“We’re trying our best,” he said. “Trump asked me if we could de-escalate the situation and maybe come up with another deal. … I can’t say anything right now more on this, except that we are trying.”

Later on Tuesday evening, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters, after having met with Mr. Trump and Mr. Rouhani, that conditions exist for a “rapid restart of negotiations” between the two countries on Iran’s nuclear program and regional security and it is up to the U.S. and Iran to “seize on those conditions.”

Mr. Macron said in his speech earlier in the day that the attack on Saudi Arabia made new negotiations with Iran more pressing.

U.S. officials have been careful not to close off the option entirely.

Asked whether the U.S. and Iranian presidents might meet this week, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker noted that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had already ruled it out.

But, Mr. Schenker added, “as we know, [Mr. Trump] is willing to talk with anyone. He meets with the North Koreans. I’m sure — he said that he’d be willing to meet with Rouhani.”

Trump administration officials have blamed Iran directly for the Sept. 14 drone and cruise missile strikes that damaged Saudi oil production capabilities, although they lack specific proof. European countries that have opposed Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal said they also think Iran is responsible for the attack.

Mr. Al-Jubeir described the statement as “a very significant step forward in terms of the European position.” He said it is an indication that Britain, France and Germany could be aligning with the U.S.-Saudi push to isolate Iran.

Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attack on the Saudi oil infrastructure.

A Saudi-led coalition has engaged in a sustained bombing campaign against the Houthis. Human rights groups blame Riyadh for civilian deaths and a massive humanitarian crisis.

Mr. Al-Jubeir said Riyadh believes Iran, which is situated to Saudi Arabia’s north, was “responsible for the attack because the equipment is Iranian equipment.”

“We know that it didn’t come from the south. We know it because of the range of the equipment,” he said. “We believe it came from the north. We are certain it came from the north, and what we are doing now is investigating to locate the actual launch site.”

The Trump administration for months has said its campaign of “maximum economic pressure” is intended to push Tehran into negotiations that address more than the nuclear issues covered by the 2015 deal, which eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for verified limits to its nuclear activities.

Brian Hook, U.S. special representative for Iran, hammered the Trump administration’s message for “comprehensive negotiations” in a speech Monday night in New York.

The 2015 deal “was insufficiently comprehensive,” Mr. Hook said at the Asia Society think tank. “The Islamic republic’s destabilizing ballistic missile program, support for terrorism and wrongful detention of American citizens were not part of the agreement, nor were they put on the table after the agreement was concluded.”

Some hard-liners close to Mr. Trump are calling for all-out regime change in Tehran.

Former New York Mayor and Trump personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani said as much during an appearance Tuesday at a street rally led by a group of dissident Iranian exiles outside U.N. headquarters.

“I am speaking in my individual capacity. I am for regime change. Down with the tyrants in Iran! Down with the ayatollah and the mullahs and all the crooks!” Mr. Giuliani told the crowd, according to a report by the Asharq Al-Awsat news outlet.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was pushing a more diplomatic message at a special meeting between U.S. officials and several Arab leaders at the Palace Hotel in New York.

Officials said the meeting of top diplomats from countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council — including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar — would be key to the Trump administration’s push to rally the region against Iran and its allies.

The effort has struggled to gain momentum over the past year because of infighting between Gulf Cooperation Council members, particularly Saudis and the Qataris, whom Riyadh and others accuse of being too close with Iran and of supporting jihadi movements in the Middle East.

The Qataris deny the allegations and said there was little sign in a U.N. speech Tuesday by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani that Doha is eager to overcome the disagreement with Riyadh, which has worked with the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain since 2017 to impose a blockade on flights, shipping and land traffic to Qatar.

Mr. Rouhani, meanwhile, is expected to seize on the acrimony in his U.N. speech with a proposal for Middle East powers to fall in line behind a new regional security plan led by Iran. The plan will reportedly focus on creating an anti-U.S. maritime security paradigm for the Strait of Hormuz, a key shipping channel in the Persian Gulf.

Some U.S. analysts have scoffed at the notion.

Mr. Rouhani’s proposal is “laughable,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank known for its hard-line stance against Iran’s government.

“The Islamic republic has been the greatest threat to maritime security, freedom of navigation and the Strait of Hormuz for the past four years,” Mr. Taleblu said in an interview. “It will be key for Washington to contest Iran’s narrative at every turn, and to be seen as supported by its closest partners and allies when doing so. This is how ‘max pressure’ can achieve a diplomatic win.”

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