US cautious, ambivalent towards Iran’s alleged attacks
WASHINGTON - More than a week after the attack on Aramco oil installations in Saudi Arabia, which many US and Saudi officials attributed to Iran, US President Donald Trump continued to pursue his politics of ambivalence vis-a-vis Tehran.
Trump announced “unprecedented” sanctions on the Iranian national bank that, he said, are the highest sanctions imposed on a country in history. US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the new sanctions target “a crucial funding mechanism that the Iranian regime uses to support its terrorist network, including al-Quds Force, Hezbollah and other militants that spread terror and destabilise the region.”
The sanctions follow the September 14 strike that hit Saudi Aramco oil installations in Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi’s Eastern province. The sophisticated attacks included cruise missiles and drones and cut Saudi oil production in half.
Trump says he does not “want war with anybody” but he seems keen also on telling the world he is not ruling out military action against Iran.
The Pentagon has presented Trump with military, political and economic options, including a list of potential targets in Iran. Trump authorised a military strike in June in retaliation to Iran’s shooting down of an US surveillance drone but called off the attack at the last minute, citing the risk of killing “dozens” of Iranians.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper announced a deployment of troops and equipment to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to support Arab Gulf countries’ air and missile defence.
US Department of Defence spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the Trump administration was waiting for confirmation from the Saudi government that the attack had been carried out by Iran before engaging in any action. Hoffman acknowledged that evidence indicated Iran was “in some way responsible.” A forensic team from US Central Command was sent to investigate the attack and determine its origin.
Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation think-tank in Washington, said: “The attack on Aramco was a direct result of the US maximum pressure campaign on Iran.”
The attack was apparently among a series of strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure but is considered the largest because it led to the disruption of an estimated 5.7 million barrels of crude oil a day, leading to a spike in global crude oil prices.
Iran-backed Houthi rebels took responsibility for the attacks but the claim was not deemed credible. US officials seem convinced Iran was behind the attack.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, posting on Twitter on September 14, said: “Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia while [Iranian President Hassan] Rohani and [Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy. Amid calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”
Iran denied responsibility for the attack and threatened “all-out war” if attacked. James Jay Carafano, vice-president at the Heritage Foundation think-tank in Washington, said Tehran’s threats, however, are not backed with an ability to engage in direct military confrontation with the United States.
“Iran knows it isn’t capable of fighting and winning a war with the United States,” he said. “The mullahs are keenly aware that a major conflict with the West would spell the collapse of their regime.”
A solo showdown with Iran does not seem to be part of Saudi strategy, either. “It is in Saudi Arabia’s interest for this maximum pressure policy on Iran to continue and its Iran’s strategy to ignite a war where everybody suffers leading to a removal of sanctions. Hence, I do not think the Saudis will play into Iran’s hands by encouraging direct armed conflict,” Shihabi said
After Pompeo’s trip to the Middle East, the tack of caution and ambivalence is likely to continue even if it runs against Trump’s threatening rhetoric, especially if evidence against Iran in the Aramco attack seems damning.
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Trump’s response to Iran has been atypical. He said Trump “is being very cautious about signalling intentions and taking a more measured approach that was very un-Trumpian.”
Trump seems to be aware he is acting outside his usual script. He admitted there was expectation he would attack Iran “within two seconds” but said there’s “plenty of time” for that.