Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday Yemenis targeted Saudi oil facilities as a “warning” about a possible wider war in response to the kingdom’s US-backed intervention in their conflict-ravaged country.
“The Yemenis… haven’t hit a hospital, they haven’t hit a school, they haven’t hit Sanaa bazaar. They just hit an industrial centre… to warn you,” Rouhani said after a cabinet meeting. “Learn lessons from this warning and consider that there could be a war in the region,” he said, in words evidently intended for the rulers of Saudi Arabia, which has spent billions of dollars on US weapons.
Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the strikes but a US official said Tuesday that the administration of President Donald Trump concluded the attacks involved cruise missiles from Iran. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has flown to Saudi Arabia to discuss possible retaliation.
Several US lawmakers urged caution, but Trump loyalist Senator Lindsey Graham branded the incident an “act of war” that merits a decisive response.
Saudi Arabia, which has been bogged down in a five-year war in Yemen, has said the weapons used in the attacks were Iranian-made but has not directly blamed its regional arch-rival.
Tehran has repeatedly denied accusations from Washington and Riyadh that it arms the Houthis.
Saturday’s attacks on Saudi energy giant Aramco’s Abqaiq processing plant and Khurais oil field temporarily halved the kingdom’s oil output.
Vice-President Mike Pence announced Tuesday that Pompeo was on his way to Saudi Arabia to “discuss our response.”
“As the president said, we don’t want war with anybody but the United States is prepared,” Pence said in a speech in Washington. “We’re locked and loaded and we’re ready to defend our interests and allies in the region, make no mistake about it,” he said, echoing President Donald Trump’s words on Monday.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the Trump administration has concluded that last weekend’s attack involved cruise missiles from Iran and that evidence would be presented at the UN General Assembly next week.
The apparent hardening of the US position came as Iran’s supreme leader ruled out negotiations with Washington “at any level.” This appeared to nix remaining hopes for a dramatic meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations next week.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One over California, Trump said he, too, had cooled on what had always seemed to be a diplomatic longshot.
“I never rule anything out, but I prefer not meeting him,” Trump said.
‘It’s not possible’
Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for Saturday’s oil installation attacks, which halved output from the petro-state, a close ally of Washington.
But a senior US administration official cast doubt on that claim, saying that while the Houthis said they used 10 drones, one Saudi oil facility was hit “at least 17 times,” and another twice by “precision-guided munitions.”
Additionally, neither the type of drone “nor the cruise missiles employed in the attack can reach the facilities from Yemen. It’s not possible,” the official said.
The Houthis are at war with Saudi-backed forces in Yemen, turning the impoverished nation into a proxy battlefield for bitter regional rivals Tehran and Riyadh.
The increasingly complex conflict dovetails with the Trump administration’s attempt to curb Iranian power through a “maximum pressure” campaign of crippling economic sanctions.
Trump began that campaign after unilaterally pulling out of a 2015 international deal meant to reward Iran for allowing restrictions on its nuclear industry.
He says that Tehran is secretly cheating and trying to build nuclear weapons and must be stopped.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Washington’s real goal was to bring his country to its knees.
“The policy of ‘maximum pressure’ against the Iranian nation is worthless and all Islamic Republic of Iran officials unanimously believe there will be no negotiations with the US at any level,” he said in a televised address.
Khamenei also said that as long as sanctions are in place, direct talks are impossible, including a meeting at the UN.
Support for war?
Whether the new stage of the long-running US-Iranian standoff leads to conflict is the big unknown.
Saudi Arabia, which has bought huge quantities of US weaponry, is considered a strategic ally in the region, second to Israel, another bitter foe of Iran.
Trump called off a retaliatory US missile attack on Iran in June after the Iranians shot down a spy drone. He said he did not want to kill what generals told him could be up to 150 people.
Trump’s administration is considering responses to the latest attack including a cyber attack or a physical strike on Iranian oil infrastructure or its Revolutionary Guards, NBC News reported, citing unnamed US officials.
Republican Lindsey Graham – a vital Trump ally in Congress – struck a belligerent tone Tuesday, charging that “such a sophisticated attack could not have occurred without Iran’s blessing and direct involvement.”
“This is literally an act of war,” Graham said.
Graham said it was “clear” that such a sophisticated attack – drones firing missiles into the world’s largest processing plant and an oilfield in Saudi Arabia – could only have originated with direction and involvement from the “evil regime in Iran.”
“This is literally an act of war and the goal should be to restore deterrence against Iranian aggression which has clearly been lost,” Graham said in a statement.
The Republican lawmaker tweeted that Washington should consider an attack on Iran’s oil refineries in response, a move that he said “will break the regime’s back.”
Graham has been a defense hawk for years, and he said that Trump’s “measured response” to Iran shooting down an American drone in June “was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness.”
Trump pushed back on Twitter, saying: “No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!”
A classified briefing book on the attacks was made available to US senators in a secure location in the US Capitol.
Other Republicans senators including Marco Rubio and Ron Johnson said they fully believe Iran was responsible for the Saudi strike.
But Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cautioned against launching a rapid-response military attack on the Islamic republic.
“We’re not anywhere near that point. We’re still in the analysis situation,” he said, adding that he has encouraged lawmakers to study the classified evidence on the attack in Saudi Arabia.
Members of Congress have been divided over Riyadh since the murder last October of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote pieces critical of the kingdom, and revelations that he was killed by Saudi agents.
While Graham appeared quick to support Riyadh on Tuesday, earlier this year he led the charge to block some US arms sales to the kingdom over Khashoggi’s brutal murder.
“There is no amount of oil that you can produce that will get me and others to give you a pass on chopping somebody up in a consulate,” Graham said in June.
While Republicans quickly agreed that Iran was behind the attack, Democrats voiced caution, noting the lessons of the Iraq war and saying that the United States instead should try to ease tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“The US should never go to war to protect Saudi oil,” said Democratic Senator Tim Kaine.
He vowed that, if Trump “starts a war against Iran to protect Saudi Arabia,” he would immediately try to end US support through Senate action.
“Sending our troops into another war in the Middle East would be a colossal mistake,” Kaine said.
A specter hangs over any US response – the cozy relationship between President Donald Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which has drawn intense controversy.
Pompeo has gone to Jeddah to consult with the powerful 34-year-old prince.
Trump’s first tweets after the attack raised eyebrows in Washington for their apparent deference to Saudi Arabia, saying that the United States was waiting to hear from Riyadh on “under what terms we would proceed.”
Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat running for president and vocal critic of foreign military intervention, harshly mocked Trump’s tone.
“Trump awaits instructions from his Saudi masters. Having our country act as Saudi Arabia’s bitch is not ‘America First,’” she said, referring to Trump’s slogan.
Defiantly supporting MBS
After his initial response, Trump has stressed that the United States will make its own decisions, saying that he has not made any promises to the Saudis and that the oil-rich kingdom would assist any action financially.
Even Republicans have criticized Crown Prince Mohammed – known by his initials MBS – after the killing a year ago of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident writer and contributor to The Washington Post who was strangled to death after being lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
But Trump has defied Congress by keeping up support, including twice vetoing measures that would have stopped US assistance for the Saudi offensive in Yemen — which the United Nations considers the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
Yasmine Farouk, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that Trump may be pretending to defer to the Saudis so that he does not bear sole responsibility for any response.
“This lets him help out the Saudis, who don’t want a war,” she said. But Trump also succeeds in “not looking like a weak president if, in the end, there isn’t any military action.”
The real estate mogul enjoys lobbing tough-worded threats against US adversaries but has also pledged to put an end to years of “endless war” that he sees as costly and misguided.
‘All about the money’
While the Saudis enjoy a decades-old relationship with the United States, Trump has made the ultra-conservative kingdom and Israel the pillars of his Middle East strategy as he tries to curb the influence of Shiite Iran.
Trump has justified the alliance on financial grounds, including its weapons sales, recently boasting that the Saudis had spent $400 billion in the United States in recent years.
“As long as Saudi Arabia is paying, Trump supports MBS no matter what,” Farouk said. “It’s all about the money and Trump doesn’t hide that.”