WASHINGTON/NEW YORK – U.S. President Donald Trump said the U.S. is “locked and loaded depending on verification” that Iran staged the attack on major Saudi Arabian oil facilities, an assertion already made by his secretary of state and backed by administration officials.
“There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification,” Trump said on Twitter on Sunday without mentioning Iran or specifying what the response would entail. He said he’s awaiting word from Saudi Arabia about who it believed caused the attack and “under what terms we would proceed!”
The massive strike on the world’s largest crude-processing facility operated by Saudi Arabia’s Aramco has global ramifications, particularly for countries in Asia. The region consumes more oil than anywhere else, with China, India, Japan and South Korea among the world’s top buyers.
The strike knocked out roughly 5 percent of the global oil supply. Oil prices surged the most on record Monday, with Brent crude seeing its biggest gain in dollar terms since futures started trading in 1988.
“Stable oil supply from the Middle East region is indispensable for the stability and prosperity of the global economy including Japan,” Japan’s Foreign Ministry said in a Sunday night statement. The government “strongly denounces such terror attacks,” it said. Japan remains committed to “continuously engaging” with the region in cooperation with other countries to maintain and reinforce peace and stability in the Middle East, it said.
China’s Foreign Ministry said Monday it was irresponsible to blame anyone for an attack without conclusive facts, striking a cautious note. Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying appealed for calm and restrain.
“Pondering who is to blame in the absence of a conclusive investigation I think is in itself not very responsible. China’s position is that we oppose any moves that expand or intensify conflict,” Hua told a daily news briefing.
“We call on relevant parties avoid taking actions that bring about an escalation in regional tensions. We hope all sides can restrain themselves and can jointly safeguard the peace and stability of the Middle East.”
China has close economic, diplomatic and energy relations with both Riyadh and Tehran and has long had to tread carefully in its ties with both. Saudi Arabia is China’s top oil supplier year to date.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the attack undermines global energy security and stability in the region. Seoul also said it would consider releasing oil from its strategic oil reserves if circumstances worsen.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned Saturday’s attacks and called on all parties to exercise restraint and prevent any escalation. The European Union warned the strikes posed a real threat to regional security, and several nations urged restraint.
Several Trump administration officials said Sunday that they had substantial evidence that Iran was behind the attack, not the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen who claimed responsibility. On Saturday, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said unequivocally in a tweet that Iran was to blame.
Two administration officials who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations told reporters that cruise missiles may have been used in the attacks on a Saudi oil field and the world’s biggest crude-processing facility in Abqaiq. The range from Yemen was also far beyond the distance of anything the Houthis have ever done, the officials said.
A third administration official, who also asked not to be identified discussing nonpublic findings, said precision-guided munitions had been used. The U.S. officials didn’t rule out that armed drones were used as well, even as they rejected the Houthi claims that they mounted the attacks using such pilotless aircraft.
Iran said on Monday that accusations it had a role in the attack were “unacceptable” and “baseless,” state television reported.
Now, the challenge that Trump and his advisers face is balancing a tough response to what it says is a clear act of Iranian aggression against concern that it’s rushing headlong into a conflict that could spiral out of control. Analysts also warn that doing nothing could send a message to Iran or its proxy militias across the Middle East that they can strike their enemies with impunity.
“There’s no great response here,” said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The question becomes how does the U.S. navigate between not allowing this precedent to stand on one hand, and avoiding a punitive escalation or one designed to deter future attacks without an escalation. And the answer is there is no answer.”
Still, a major U.S. military response may be unlikely, according to experts who said they doubt Trump will be willing to use force against Tehran or risk escalating violence in the Middle East ahead of the 2020 presidential election. In June, Trump said he considered a military strike on Iran for shooting down a U.S. drone, only to call off the action at the last minute.
Analysts also said the attacks may do little to deter the president from seeking a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in an effort to broker a new nuclear agreement. Trump hasn’t ruled out a possible meeting with Rouhani when both are in New York in a week for the annual United Nations General Assembly. But Iran said Monday there would be no such meeting at the United Nations, state television reported.
The administration’s “maximum pressure” stance against Iran is focused on imposing sanctions and isolating the country over its nuclear ambitions and malign activities in the region. That approach has come under renewed scrutiny at a time the president’s foreign policy team is in flux, after Trump’s firing of hawkish national security adviser John Bolton last week.
U.S. and Saudi officials say they’re gathering more evidence that Iran was behind the attacks — some of it on the ground in Saudi Arabia — that will be released in due time.
According to U.S. government information, there were 19 points of attack at state-owned Saudi Aramco’s crude-processing facility at Abqaiq and the Khurais oil field, all on the north or northwest-facing sides — suggesting that the weaponry used came from that direction. Iraq lies to the north, and the U.S. in the past has accused Iran of stashing explosives with affiliated militias in the country. Yemen, by contrast, is hundreds of kilometers to the south.
Saudi Aramco lost roughly 5.7 million barrels per day of output after the attacks, although officials cited progress in restoring production.
Pompeo tweeted Saturday that there is “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen” and accused Iran of being behind “an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.”
“The United States will work with our partners and allies to ensure that energy markets remain well supplied and Iran is held accountable for its aggression,” he added.
Paul Pillar, a former CIA officer, said the one “policy option left is de-escalation — of the Saudi air war against Yemen, and of the Trump administration’s economic war against Iran.”
Pillar, who’s now a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University in Washington, said “further attempts to escalate on either of those war fronts offers no reason to believe that they would be any more successful than the wars have been up to this point.”
Trump would risk criticism from many of his Republican allies if he chose to meet with Iran’s leader barely a week after accusing the country of being responsible for a strike that caused a significant disruption to the world’s oil markets. Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina has said the U.S. shouldn’t rule out a military strike on Iranian oil facilities in response.
“Iran will not stop their misbehavior until the consequences become more real, like attacking their refineries, which will break the regime’s back,” Graham tweeted Saturday.
One Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said Trump sees what he wants to see in world events, so if he wanted to meet with Iran’s president, the strikes wouldn’t necessarily deter him. Trump has repeatedly brushed aside short-range missile tests by North Korea as he seeks to broker a historic nuclear pact with leader Kim Jong Un.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said on “Fox News Sunday” that the administration will continue its “maximum pressure campaign,” but she added that “the president will always consider his options,” including a meeting with Rouhani. That was hours before Trump seemed to rule out a meeting unless the Iranian president met unspecified conditions.
The attacks on Saudi Arabia also pose a major test for Pompeo, who has an opportunity to consolidate power after Bolton’s departure.
Pompeo and Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, have argued the U.S. could afford to ramp up sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Iran because there’s plenty of global oil supply. But there’s now little cushion in the market with the major disruption caused by the drone attacks, which could force the president and his team to look for ways to relieve the pressure.
While analysts estimate Saudi Arabia may be able to restore half of the lost production as early as Monday, Trump said on Twitter Sunday that he’s authorized the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve if needed based on the attacks “in a to-be-determined amount sufficient to keep the markets well-supplied.” The stock of about 645 million barrels of crude and petroleum products could help meet demand during the time it would take for the Saudis to repair the facilities. Trump also told U.S. agencies to expedite approvals of oil pipelines in the permitting process.
There’s also the question of the administration’s credibility. Some foreign policy analysts said it’s hard to take at face value the claim that Tehran is responsible, given the hard line against Iran advocated by Pompeo, Bolton and others.
“The Trump administration appears to have evidence of Iranian responsibility but will face skepticism from others, both because of policy disagreements between the U.S. and its allies, and because declining to attribute an attack provides an excuse not to respond,” tweeted Michael Singh, managing director for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.