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Donald Trump, Shifting Tone, Plays Down Talk of War With Iran Over Oil Strike

President Donald Trump warned that the US is prepared for war if necessary, but also said he would “like to avoid” a military conflict with Tehran.

New York Times

Updated:September 17, 2019, 3:44 PM IST
Donald Trump, Shifting Tone, Plays Down Talk of War With Iran Over Oil Strike
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Santa Ana Star Center, in in Rio Rancho, New Mexico on September 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump said on Monday that Iran appeared to have been responsible for the weekend attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities. But he also said he would “like to avoid” a military conflict with Tehran, emphasised his interest in diplomacy and played down the attack’s jolt to the global oil market.

Asked at the White House whether Iran was behind the strikes on Saturday that crippled much of Saudi Arabia’s oil output, Trump said, “It’s looking that way.” But he stopped short of a definitive confirmation, adding, “That’s being checked out right now.”

The attack was the most destructive blow to Saudi Arabia since it began waging war in Yemen more than four years ago. The damage inside Saudi Arabia helped drive world oil prices up by 10% on Monday, the fastest rise in more than a decade.

Trump warned that the United States has fearsome military capabilities and is prepared for war if necessary. “With all that being said, we’d certainly like to avoid it,” he said. “I know they want to make a deal,” he said of Iranian officials, whom he has been trying to draw into talks over their nuclear program and other issues. “At some point it will work out.”

Trump’s comments represented a notable shift in tone from the day before, when he wrote on Twitter that the United States was “locked and loaded,” ready to take action based on Saudi Arabia’s needs.

On Monday, he told reporters he had not “promised” to protect the Saudis. Rather, Trump said, he will “sit down with the Saudis and work something out.”

The president’s statements came shortly after Saudi Arabia, Iran’s principal rival in the region, said Iranian weapons had been used in the attack. But while the Saudis said they would “forcefully respond to these aggressions,” they also stopped short of directly blaming Iran and did not call for immediate retaliation.

The comments from Trump and the Saudis suggested they did not want the episode to escalate into a wider conflict, just a week before world leaders converge at the United Nations for the General Assembly. Trump had proposed meeting with Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, possibly at the annual gathering in New York, although Iran ruled that out on Monday.

Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Houthi insurgents in Yemen, who have been fighting a calamitous civil war against a Saudi-led military coalition. Iran is a chief ally of the Houthis.

US officials directly blamed Iran over the weekend for the blows to the Saudi oil facilities. They presented satellite photographs of the damage, contending that the images indicated that the attack had come from the north or northwest — in the direction of Iran or Iraq — not from Yemen, which is to the south. The Saudis also said Monday that their initial investigation showed that the attack had not come from Yemen.

But an analysis of the images by independent experts challenged those assertions.

The images did suggest a complex, precise attack that far exceeded any capabilities the Houthis had previously shown, raising the likelihood of Iran’s involvement.

Still, experts said the images were insufficient to prove where the attack came from, which weapons were used and who fired them.

Iran has denied any involvement in the strike, which threatened to disrupt the global flow of oil.

But Trump sought to play down the effect on oil prices. “They haven’t risen very much, and we have the strategic oil reserves, which are massive,” he told reporters. By releasing some of those reserves, he said, “you’d bring it right down.”

Trump has sent mixed signals on his response to the attack, which happened only a few days after he dismissed John R. Bolton, his national security adviser, who was known for having wanted to strike Iran militarily.

Earlier on Monday, Trump took to Twitter to suggest that Tehran could not be believed, reminding his followers of Iran’s downing of a US surveillance drone in June. Iran’s version of events “was a very big lie,” he wrote. “Now they say that they had nothing to do with the attack on Saudi Arabia. We’ll see?”

Trump, who has made US policy toward Iran markedly more hostile with severe economic sanctions, tweeted on Sunday night that Washington was seeking Saudi input before a potential military response. Saying the military was braced to respond, “depending on verification,” he wrote, “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit.”

Trump did not rule out a lethal military strike. Asked later Monday on the White House lawn if such an action would be proportional, he responded: “I would say yes.”

No clear public message emerged from Saudi Arabia on what response the Saudis prefer.

Prominent supporters of the monarchy have portrayed the strikes as an assault on the world and its energy markets, not just Saudi Arabia, and some have talked of retaliation.

“What is required is nothing more than the destruction of Iran’s oil installations, and if there is a capacity, nuclear facilities and military bases as well,” argued Turki al-Hamad, a prominent Saudi political analyst and novelist.

But other social media accounts known for pro-government propaganda argued for patience, saying that wisdom favors choosing the right time and means to respond.

Mohammed Alyahya, editor-in-chief of the English website of the Saudi-owned television news channel Al-Arabiya, emphasized that the kingdom’s rulers were deliberating carefully.

The attacks show that Iranians are feeling the pain of the Trump administration’s sweeping sanctions, he said, and “they are more likely to take risks like the one they took recently.”

“A conventional military response must only be embarked upon with the utmost care in terms of the legality and consequences, after looking at all the other alternatives,” Alyahya said. “If there is a military conflict, Iran will inevitably be the biggest loser, but the reality is that everybody will lose. A conventional war will take its toll on everyone.”

The Houthis insisted Monday that they had carried out the strikes using drones and threatened more. They made no reference to whether Iranian equipment or training had played a role.

A spokesman for the Houthi military, Brig. Gen. Yahya Sare’e, “warned companies and foreigners not to be present in the factories that were hit by our strikes because we may target them again at any moment,” Almasirah, the Houthi news organization, reported Monday.

The Houthis can strike at will anywhere in Saudi Arabia, he said, and their actions against it “will expand and be more painful.”

UN experts say that Iran has supplied the Houthis with drones and missiles that have greatly expanded their offensive capacity.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has worked extensively with other allied groups in the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and Shiite militias in Iraq.

Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has killed thousands, many of them civilians. The war there is considered the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis of recent years, displacing millions of people and leaving millions more at risk of starvation.

The Houthis claimed to have used 10 drones in Saturday’s attack; US officials said that there were 17 points of impact. The rebel group has launched missile and drone attacks into Saudi territory before, but never anything on that scale, or against such vital targets, or so deep into the kingdom, 500 miles from Yemeni territory.

The attack forced the shutdown of facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, which ordinarily are responsible for most of the crude oil produced by Saudi Arabia; the kingdom supplies about a tenth of the worldwide total.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have increased sharply since last year, when Trump abandoned the 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program and reimposed economic sanctions there. This spring, he imposed new sanctions, and Iran, which had continued to abide by the 2015 accord after the US withdrawal, began stepping back from some of the accord’s obligations.

In May and June, several tankers were damaged in or near the Strait of Hormuz, in what US officials said were Iranian attacks. Iran has also seized several foreign ships.

On Monday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said that a British-flagged tanker, Stena Impero, which Iran impounded near its coast in July, would be released within days. Iran took the ship after British and Gibraltar forces seized an Iranian tanker, which was released last month after more than six weeks’ detention.

Richard Pérez-Peña, David D. Kirkpatrick and Michael Crowley c.2019 The New York Times Company

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