President Donald Trump wants the world to believe Iran was behind a weekend attack on Saudi oil facilities that took 6 percent of the world’s supply offline — but he’s just not ready to say it out loud.
The U.S. commander in chief on two occasions Monday sent strong signals his national security team and Saudi officials are increasingly confident the Iranian government is responsible for the armed drone and missile strikes.
“Well, it’s looking that way,” Trump said when asked if Iran was responsible. “We’ll let you know definitively. ... That’s being checked out right now.”
Asked again during an Oval Office meeting with Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, crown prince of Bahrain, Trump said it “certainly would look” like Iran was behind the attack that has rattled energy markets.
About an hour later, Trump again took questions from reporters as he left the White House for a campaign rally in New Mexico, followed by two days of California fundraisers. And once again, he declined to say firmly that Tehran orchestrated the Saudi attack.
"We’re going to find out… There are lots of different pieces to look at,” he said over the loud hum of Marine One’s engines. “We’ll know for certain over the next few [days].”
But Trump also flashed his usual bravado — though it is unclear if he merely is attempting to use tough rhetoric to convince Iran to alter its tactics amid scrapped talks over its nuclear program.
At one point on the South Lawn, the president was asked if a lethal U.S. military strike would be a proportional response to an attack on oil facilities.
“I would say yes,” he replied.
During his lengthy Oval Office back-and-forth with reporters, the president declared the United States “more prepared than any country in the history of … any history, if we have to go that way.”
Yet, he also flashed signs of his foreign policy philosophy that is skeptical about military intervention solving many global problems. That is in line with his 2016 campaign message that he would untangle America from its post-9/11 conflicts and avoid getting the country into similar ones — a campaign promise he has mostly kept.
In late June, Trump first moved U.S. Navy ships into combat positions and launched American military aircraft before calling off a planned strike as retaliation for Iran shooting down an armed U.S. drone aircraft. Trump later said he decided because the U.S. military expected their strikes would cause civilian casualties, it would not have been proportional to the downing of an unmanned plane.
Three months later, he again appeared to be wavering about ordering a strike.
“With all that being said, we’d certainly like to avoid it,” he said of an U.S.-Iran conflict, adding he is not concerned that a larger regional conflict could be afoot as tensions in the always-volatile region again heat up.
Another option would be additional sanctions. Late last year, he put back in place all economic penalties the Obama administration lifted under the nuclear deal it and other world powers struck with Tehran.
Varsha Koduvayur, an analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank, said the oil facility attack “fits the pattern of Iran signaling to the Gulf states that if it can't get its oil out, it will cause their oil exports to become collateral damage.”
“The attacks also show how the Iranian threat to the Arabian peninsula has morphed over the past three years,” according to Koduvayur. “The threat of Iranian encirclement of the Gulf is metastasizing.”
Oil prices moved upward Monday, but Trump said he doesn't expect they will spike or have a substantial long-term effect on the U.S. economy.
Earlier Monday, a group of 23 Democratic and five Republican lawmakers wrote to House-Senate conferees working on a compromise fiscal 2020 Pentagon policy bill urging them to include language that would, if Trump signed it, “prohibit an unauthorized and unconstitutional war with Iran.”
“Bipartisan majorities in both chambers have spoken up to defend Congress' constitutional authority over matters of war and peace,” the members wrote. “With regional tensions high, the risk of the U.S. entering into war with Iran without authorization remains acute.”
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