Donald Trump is “locked and loaded” again, and Iran is in the crosshairs.
Shortly after Brent crude surged nearly 20% as markets reacted to Saturday’s dramatic attacks on the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, the US president told the world he’s pretty sure he knows who’s responsible.
“There is reason to believe that we know the culprit”, Trump said, in a tweet, adding that the US is “locked and loaded depending on verification”. On Saturday, Mike Pompeo said there was no evidence the attacks originated in Yemen despite Houthi claims. Pompeo’s tweets appeared to suggest the State Department might assert, as it did earlier this summer, that the attacks were launched from Iraq, a contention Baghdad denies.
Trump went on to say the White House is “waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”
The president sounded excited. But not as excited as he apparently was less than a minute later, when he tweeted this: “PLENTY OF OIL!”
The tweets came as unnamed US officials claimed the Houthis do not possess the munitions used in the attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais.
Reuters cites an unidentified US source as saying there were “19 points of impact in the attack on Saudi facilities and that evidence showed the launch area was west-northwest of the targets – not south from Yemen”.
The Saudis, meanwhile, have floated the idea that cruise missiles may have been used in the strikes. “There’s no doubt that Iran is responsible for this. No matter how you slice it, there’s no escaping it. There’s no other candidate”, the official said.
For what it’s worth, Abqaiq and Khurais are in range, along with everything else. Consider this from the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
All of Saudi Arabia is threatened by Iranian missiles, and the number of Iranian missiles capable of reaching the country would overwhelm virtually any missile defense system. Iran maintains the largest ballistic and cruise missile force in the Middle East, capable of striking targets as far as 2,500 km from its borders. Iranian missiles continue to improve in terms of range, speed, flight profile, and destructiveness. In the event of military escalation, Iran could use its largely road-mobile missile force to target critical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Several of the sites highlighted in this brief—such as the port of Ras Tanura, Ras Al-Khair power and desalination plant, and the Abqaiq processing and stabilization plant—exist within range of Iran’s land-based ballistic missile force. These sites are also vulnerable to ship-launched missiles. Targets further from Iran’s border, such as the refinery at Yanbu, located along the Red Sea, are also within range of Iran’s medium-range ballistic missiles.
Note the explicit reference to Abqaiq.
Officials who spoke to reporters on Sunday said the Houthis have never conducted attacks from Yemen with the kind of range necessary for Saturday’s strikes, although it is possible.
“A third administration official, who also asked not to be identified discussing non-public findings, said precision-guided munitions had been used”, Bloomberg reports, noting that “the evidence put forward by several administration officials on Sunday suggested the administration was sensitive to skepticism about its assertions as well as concern that it may be trying to provoke a conflict with the regime in Tehran”.
Clearly, this leaves Trump in a bind. If he responds militarily, he risks plunging the US into an intractable conflict and virtually guaranteeing more strikes on the Saudis (not to mention the Israelis). If Trump does nothing, it will be seen as a sign of weakness, especially now that Pompeo has publicly stated Iran is directly responsible, as opposed to the kind of secondary responsibility normally associated with Houthi attacks.
“Some Iraqi media outlets said the attack came from there”, Reuters goes on to say, adding that “Kuwait said it was investigating the sighting of a drone over its territory and coordinating with Saudi Arabia and other countries”.
“The Trump administration appears to have evidence of Iranian responsibility, but will face skepticism from others, both because of policy disagreements between the US and its allies, and because declining to attribute an attack provides an excuse not to respond”, Michael Singh, managing director for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Sunday. He went on to tweet that “the attack fits with Iran’s apparent strategy at the moment – faced with a de facto oil embargo, it aims to deter the US by escalating its regional aggression and nuclear activities, likely because it perceives these are two areas of comparative advantage”.
“We were cocked and loaded to retaliate when I asked, how many will die”, Trump dramatically recounted, on June 21, after the IRGC downed a US surveillance drone.
According to the president, “a general” told him the body count would be “150 people, sir”.
That was a bridge too far for Trump, who apparently hadn’t considered the possibility that when you hit another country with a barrage of missiles, some folks will be killed.
At the time, the world wondered if Trump would show similar restraint when things invariably escalated anew. Judging by his Sunday evening tweets, we’re about to find out.