(Bloomberg) — The U.S. will send a “moderate” number of troops to the Middle East and additional missile defense capabilities to Saudi Arabia in response to last weekend’s attack on oil facilities, top Pentagon officials said. The top Democrat in Congress said the actions are unacceptable.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Friday that the decision came at the request of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and represented a “first step” in the U.S. response. He reiterated U.S. statements that evidence collected to date shows Iran was responsible for the attacks. The briefing by Esper and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, followed a meeting of national security officials at the White House.
“Iran is waging a deliberate campaign to destabilize the Middle East,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. He added that the U.S. has shown “great restraint” in responding so far, but called the strike on Saudi Aramco facilities on Saturday a “dramatic escalation.”
Esper and Dunford are still deciding on the specific number of troops and weapons systems but said the personnel deployment will be relatively small, not numbering in the thousands, and that more details would be forthcoming.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Saturday said the decision is an attempt by the administration to circumvent the will of Congress, which adopted resolutions to block arms sales to the Saudis and U.A.E. and condemn the Saudis for the “continued assault” on men, women and children.
“These unacceptable actions are cause for alarm,” Pelosi said Saturday in a statement. “Americans are weary of war, and have no interest in entering another Middle East conflict, particularly on behalf of Saudi Arabia.”
In addition to the U.S. missile defense assistance, Esper said “we are calling on many other countries who all have these capabilities to do two things — stand up and condemn these attacks” and also contribute equipment.
U.S. and Saudi analyses of the attack have described the strike as complex, involving a mix of low-flying drones and cruise missiles coming from the north. The attack exposed glaring vulnerabilities in Saudi Arabia’s defense capabilities despite having spent hundreds of billions of dollars on weaponry in recent years.
Swarms of Drones
“There’s an international action led by the U.S. and in coordination with the Saudi kingdom to protect the navigation in the gulf and the Arabian sea,” Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir said in a news conference in Riyadh on Saturday. This way “tankers and oil supplies are not subject to any complications from Iran,” he said.
Saudi Arabia has already taken delivery of Patriot-3 hit-to-kill missiles bought years ago to defend against cruise and ballistic missiles. The kingdom earlier this year finalized a long-sought after contract for Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Thaad missile interceptors designed to intercept ballistic missiles at higher altitudes. It’s not known whether any Thaad batteries have been delivered.
“No single system is going to be able to defend against a threat like” the combination of systems launched against Saudi Arabia last week, Dunford said. “But a layered system of defensive capabilities would mitigate the risk of swarms of drones or other attacks that may come from Iran.”
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who has repeatedly said Iran was responsible for the attack, returned early Friday from a two-day trip to Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., saying he wanted to begin building a coalition that would organize a response to Iran.
During a news conference earlier Friday, President Donald Trump signaled he’s trying to avoid a military conflict. Trump campaigned in 2016 on getting the U.S. out of Mideast conflicts and he’s repeatedly criticized the second U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“I will say I think the sanctions work, and the military would work,” Trump told reporters. “But that’s a very severe form of winning.”
On Friday the Treasury Department announced it is sanctioning Iran’s central bank and sovereign wealth fund, a move aimed at squelching any remaining trade the country conducts with Europe and Asia.
The Blame Game
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that any U.S. or Saudi strike on his country in response to the attacks on the kingdom’s critical oil facilities would lead to “all-out war.”
“I know that we didn’t do it,” Zarif told CNN. “I know that the Houthis made a statement that they did it.”
Zarif later said in a post on Twitter that it was “curious” the Saudis “retaliated” against Yemen when Iran was blamed for the attacks. “It is clear that even the Saudis themselves don’t believe the fiction of Iranian involvement.”
Yemeni Shiite Houthi rebel leader Mahdi al-Mashat announced Friday the halt of drone and ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. He also called on the Saudi-led coalition to lift the blockade on the port of Hodeidah and reopen Sana’a International Airport.
“We judge other parties by their deeds and actions and not by their words,” Saudi Arabia’s Al-Jubeir said.
–With assistance from Dana El Baltaji, Donna Abu-Nasr and Salma El Wardany.
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