Pompeo to fly to Mideast as Tehran rules out talks
By CAROL MORELLO, KAREEM FAHIM | The Washington Post | Published: September 17, 2019
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would fly to the Persian Gulf on Wednesday to discuss a response to an attack on Saudi oil facilities after Iran's supreme leader ruled out any direct talks with the United States.
Pompeo's spur-of-the-moment trip, which will include stops in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, underscores the danger that tensions with Iran could spiral into a military conflict. President Donald Trump has said that Iran was likely responsible for the attack, but that he would "like to avoid" a war, while Pompeo has assigned blame more directly.
The weekend attack, which the United States believes originated in Iran despite claims by rebels in Yemen that they carried it out, appears to have dashed all hope that Trump might meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly next week.
"All the officials in the Islamic Republic unanimously believe that there will be no negotiations at any level with the United States," Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in remarks published on his website.
U.S. forensics experts have been dispatched to Saudi Arabia to assist in an investigation of where the projectiles originated, and U.S. officials said the kingdom may ask the Security Council to condemn Iran if it is proved to be responsible.
"We do see a role for the U.N. Security Council to play," a senior administration official said Tuesday, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss the factors more frankly. Saudi Arabia "was attacked, and it would be appropriate for them to call upon the council. But we first need to gather the releasable information."
"The U.N. Security Council was created to address threats to international peace and security, and this attack meets that criteria," the official added.
Pompeo's whirlwind visit will allow him to discuss ways to respond to Iran's actions in the region, including its support for the rebels in Yemen, who are known as Houthis, amid a Saudi-led bombing campaign that has killed thousands of Yemeni civilians.
In the seaside city of Jiddah, where he will arrive Wednesday, Pompeo will meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the State Department said. They will confer on the recent attack and coordinate on countering Iran.
Later, Pompeo will visit Abu Dhabi to meet with UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. The UAE's foreign minister called the attack on Saudi Arabia a "dangerous escalation" and said it has nothing to do with the war in Yemen.
In a tweet Saturday, Pompeo blamed Iran for what he called "an unprecedented attack on the world's energy supply," saying there was "no evidence" that it came from Yemen. He has not offered evidence for his claims.
Iran has denied any involvement in the strikes, the most damaging on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure in a generation.
In his remarks Tuesday, Khamenei said that if the United States returns to the 2015 nuclear deal that Tehran struck with world powers, it could take part in negotiations with Iran along with the agreement's other signatories. The Trump administration withdrew from the pact and has imposed on Iran economic sanctions and an embargo on oil exports.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that U.S. military personnel were assisting Saudi Arabia with its investigation but that officials would wait for the kingdom to make a determination about responsibility.
Speaking to reporters in London, Dunford said Iran or its proxies were likely behind the strike, which he described as a "very complex, precise attack." But he declined to say whether the United States had formally determined whether it originated in Iran.
Dunford also made reference to the limited visibility the U.S. government has into what happens in the Middle East.
"We don't have overhead imagery to share, we don't have tracks to share, we don't have an unblinking eye over the entire Middle East at all times," he said. "Our intelligence surveillance reconnaissance capabilities are focused on threats routinely to us, so we wouldn't necessarily see everything that goes on in the region."
Dunford said the attack differed from previous Houthi strikes in Saudi Arabia, which have occurred regularly since the kingdom's war with the Yemeni rebels began more than four years ago.
Dunford said Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who heads the military command stretching from Egypt to Pakistan, had not requested additional forces in the wake of the attacks beyond the roughly 70,000-80,000 now under his command in the region.
In considering potential responses, Dunford said he was "thinking about options to help the Saudis defend themselves" and "restoring deterrence," suggesting Pentagon leaders were not preparing an imminent retaliatory strike.
"If this was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and they requested help in defending themselves, we would be supporting Saudi Arabia. That's the framework within which we would provide the president options," he said.
The general said Trump had not issued orders for any action. "The president has made it clear he is not looking to go to war. Having said that, what we saw was an unacceptable act of aggression," he said. "There are a number of ways to deal with that."
Vice President Mike Pence told Republican senators Tuesday that the main goal now was to "restore deterrence," but he has not endorsed any sort of kinetic strike against Iran or its assets, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said.
Pence did not directly fault Iran for the strike but echoed Trump's words that "it is likely that it was Iran," said Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Risch added: "Based on past information, the president is on very solid ground saying that."
Pence's meeting with Senate Republicans took place during their weekly policy lunch behind closed doors and stuck close to topics that have already been made public, senators said. He did not discuss the details of any options to respond to the attack, senators present said, and encouraged lawmakers to review the available intelligence themselves.
Lawmakers are trying to schedule a briefing with senior defense and intelligence officials later this week.
"We did not come to a consensus, nor probably should at this point," Risch said, noting that he hoped that eventual agreement on the path forward "should be bipartisan." He said that the administration had been "very forthcoming" but that "there's going to be more factual information coming out in the coming days."
Despite Pence holding back on a final verdict, Graham said "no one doubted" Iran was responsible.
"It's inconceivable an attack like this could have occurred without the ayatollah's blessing," he said.
Fahim reported from Istanbul. The Washington Post's Erin Cunningham, also in Istanbul; Paul Sonne in London; and Missy Ryan, Dan Lamothe and Karoun Demirjian in Washington contributed to this report.