For a president with a loose relationship with the facts and poisonous relationships with allies, the attack on the Saudi oil fields poses a challenge: how to prove the administration’s case that Iran was behind the strike and rally the world to respond.
President Donald Trump must now confront that problem as he struggles with one of the most critical national security decisions of his presidency. Over the next few days or weeks, he will almost certainly face the reality that much of the world — angry at his tweets, tirades, untruths and accusations — could be disinclined to believe the arguments advanced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others that Iran bears responsibility for the attack.
If Trump tries to gather a coalition to impose diplomatic penalties, tighten sanctions to further choke off Iranian oil exports or retaliate with a military or cyberstrike, he may discover that, like President George W. Bush heading into Iraq 16 years ago, he is largely alone.
Already, intelligence officials are hinting, in background conversations, that the evidence implicating Iran is just too delicate to make public. One theory gaining support among American officials is that the cruise missile and drone attack was launched from southwest Iran or in the waters nearby.
But the evidence gathered so far, one official said, “isn’t a slam-dunk,” deliberately using the phrase that George J. Tenet, the CIA director in 2003, came to regret when he employed it to argue, incorrectly it turned out, that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction.
After the bitter Iraq experience, it would be hard for any American president to persuade the country and its allies to take his word that it is time to risk another war in the Middle East, barring incontrovertible evidence that could be made public. For Trump, it could be an especially tough sell.
“Painfully, the word of the president will be suspect,” Wendy R. Sherman, who negotiated the details of the Iran deal for the Obama administration, said Tuesday.
Trump’s “hyperbole and outright fabrications through a daily tweet diet,” she said, has left him with “little credibility with Congress, allies and partners, let alone the American people.”
“All will be challenged to accept a Trump assessment of what occurred in the attack on Saudi oil facilities,” she added.
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, warned Tuesday that his former boss, who fired him 18 months ago, will have to tread carefully.
“Setting aside the question of US credibility, that challenge would be there,” said Tillerson, who as a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil spent much of his life operating in the Middle East.
Speaking to Harvard’s American Secretaries of State Project, where he was explaining his tumultuous 14 months in the Trump administration, Tillerson said that building a concrete case against Iran would be difficult.
“I have no doubt that we will find Iran’s fingerprints on this,” he said, “but we may not find their hands on it.”
Even if American and other experts who are now in Saudi Arabia to conduct a forensic study conclude that Iran built the drones or cruise missiles, they may have a hard time establishing — especially for the public — where the weapons were launched from or who shot them toward the Saudi oil fields.
“A military response on the sovereign territory of Iran is a very serious matter,” Tillerson cautioned. “And not one that anyone should take with less than fully conclusive information.”
Pentagon officials appear to agree. That is why the options now being discussed include alternatives like retaliating against Iranian facilities outside of Iranian territory and conducting cyber strikes. If the latter option were chosen, it would be akin to the cyber operations that blew up Iran’s nuclear centrifuges a decade ago and the move to wipe out military databases several months ago, after a U.S. drone was shot down by Iran.
The Saudis seem to sense the credibility problem.
Even they have not yet publicly followed Pompeo in accusing Iran of responsibility. In a statement Monday, the Saudi government urged an international investigation, led by the United Nations, to determine responsibility.
That move, unusual for a country that disdains the United Nations almost as much as the Trump administration does, seemed an acknowledgment that the world would not take Trump’s word nor that of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Over the past year, the crown prince has encountered credibility problems of his own. He has repeatedly denied that he sent or had knowledge of the Saudi team that killed Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. The evidence suggests otherwise.
For Trump, the suspicions about any US assessment of responsibility will be colored by another problem: European officials blame him, as much as the Iranians, for creating the circumstances that led to the attack.
In their telling, it was Trump’s decision, soon after he fired Tillerson, to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal that set in motion the events that culminated in the crippling of the two Saudi oil fields.
For the past 18 months, Trump has been steadily reimposing sanctions on Iran. At first, the Iranians largely ignored those steps and remained part of the 4-year-old agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear ability in return for lifting most sanctions on the country.
But as the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign took its toll, Iranian officials began breaking out of the accord’s limits — arguing they would not be bound by an agreement Trump had abandoned — and seizing oil tankers.
The European argument is that Trump has unnecessarily provoked the Iranians. That is why France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, is leading an effort to undermine the US sanctions by issuing a $15 billion line of credit to Iran, in hopes of getting them back in compliance with the deal to which France was a partner.
Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, said Tuesday that the best strategy for defusing tensions with Iran was for Trump to back down.
“The deal to stop Iran from acquiring military nuclear capabilities is a building block we need to get back to,” she said.
Trump’s envoy for Iranian issues, Brian H. Hook, has argued that the Europeans fundamentally misunderstand Iran’s strategy. Even after Tehran signed the 2015 agreement, Hook has said, they were arming terrorist groups, supporting President Bashar Assad of Syria, building more powerful missiles and conducting cyber operations against the United States.
That argument will not be easily resolved. European leaders will most likely be cautious about siding with Trump and the Saudis if they propose steps that could escalate into a broader conflict.
Americans may wonder, too, whether it is worth it, noted Meghan L. O’Sullivan, Bush’s Iraq coordinator and author of “Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power.”
“Many Americans think US interests in protecting Middle Eastern oil supplies have dramatically declined,” she said Tuesday.
“They are largely wrong about this,” she said, “but certainly, most Americans think the days of going to war over oil are in the past.”
The next few days will be critical. Michael J. Morell, the former deputy director of the CIA, who briefed Bush on September 11, 2001, said Trump will face a difficult trade-off.
After he gets the intelligence agency’s “best assessment on who was behind the attack,” Morell said, Trump “must then balance the need to protect sources and methods with the need to inform Congress and the American people about why he takes or doesn’t take any action.”
“The credibility of the United States matters every single day,” he added. “And when it is eroded in the eyes of our allies over time, it then ultimately makes moments like this even more difficult.”