Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

Pompeo heads to the Middle East as US weighs options on Saudi Arabia

Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday the US was ready to defend the interests of its allies

The US is ready to respond after attacks on Saudi oil centres, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is flying to the kingdom and the UAE late on Tuesday night to discuss options, Vice President Mike Pence said.

Echoing US President Donald Trump, Mr Pence said the White House was not seeking a war but: “In the wake of this unprovoked attack, I promise you we’re ready.”

“We’re evaluating all of the evidence," he told the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday. "We’re consulting with our allies.”

Two official US State Department sources confirmed to The National that Mr Pompeo would leave the US on Tuesday night for Saudi Arabia and will be in the UAE on Thursday.

He was due to leave Washington after meeting Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad on Tuesday afternoon.

The State Department said in a statement that Mr Pompeo will travel to Jeddah and Abu Dhabi.

“The Secretary will begin his trip in Jeddah, arriving September 18. He will meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss the recent attack on the Kingdom’s oil facilities and coordinate efforts to counter Iranian aggression in the region,” it said.

In Abu Dhabi he will “meet with UAE Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to discuss regional and bilateral issues.”

The US has blamed Iran for the weekend attacks on Saudi Aramco oil-processing plants in the country’s east.

“Well, it’s looking that way," Mr Trump said on Monday. "We’ll let you know definitively. That’s being checked out right now.”

The attack knocked out about half of Saudi’s oil production, or a little more than 5 per cent of global supply.

Mr Pence on Tuesday also repeated Mr Trump’s statement that the US was “locked and loaded, and we’re ready to defend the interests of our allies. Make no mistake about it".

“We will take whatever action is necessary to defend our country, our troops and our allies in the Gulf. You can count on it," he said.

The US administration also briefed Congress on the details of the attack, The Washington Post reported.

On Tuesday, there was a clear divide among legislators on how to address the attack, even within the Republican party.Republican Senator Lindsey Graham urged Mr Trump to consider strikes against Iran in retaliation, while others, including Republican Senator Mitt Romney, tweeted that would be a “grave mistake”.

Reports on Tuesday asserted that the attack on Aramco came from Iranian territory.

The attack was launched from Iranian soil and cruise missiles were involved, a senior US official told AFP.

There is a “very high probability” that the attack used low-altitude cruise missiles “launched from an Iranian base near the border with Iraq", CNN reported,

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper tweeted: “The US military, with our interagency team, is working with our partners to address this unprecedented attack and defend the international rules-based order that is being undermined by Iran.”

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said the US had limited options.

Those include “some form of punitive response, whether military or cyber; a push alongside Saudi to elevate this up UN channels; or to offer under or above the table talks with Iran”.

But Mr Lister told The National those options may be unrealistic because Mr Trump “is unlikely to back military action, the UN is virtually powerless to do anything meaningful and unconditional talks seem almost impossible to imagine within current circumstances”.

“In truth, [Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leader] Qassem Soleimani and the IRGC machine have got the US and our Gulf allies just where they want them to be,” he said.

“The Trump administration’s maximum pressure approach to Iran has lacked any strategy whatsoever," Mr Lister said.

"It’s been sanctions and lots of hard talk, with no depth, no substance, no meaningful coalition and no clear end-game in mind."

After his address, Mr Pence tweeted: “America’s maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian regime is working. And if Iran conducted this attack to pressure the president to back off, they will fail.”

The US administration is increasing the intelligence it shares with Saudi Arabia and could consider increasing its assets in the Gulf to deter Iran, the Post reported.

Updated: September 18, 2019 08:36 AM

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