WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump has approved the deployment of additional U.S. troops and air defense assets to Saudi Arabia, in a muted military response to last week's attack on Saudi oil facilities.
At a news conference late Friday following a White House meeting with Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper emphasized that the deployments were defensive in nature, and in response to requests from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help protect "critical infrastructure" from further attacks by Iran.
Word of the deployments, coupled with an announcement of new economic sanctions, indicated that despite Trump's initial "locked and loaded" response to the attacks - and the urging of some advisers - he does not plan U.S. military retaliation.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., said the "moderate deployment," numbering in the hundreds, will be in addition to any forces and equipment the United States is asking allies to contribute.
Dunford said the military will determine the exact composition of the new forces, the second time in recent months that the United States has boosted troops in the region in response to Iranian actions. The Sept. 14 attack by drones and cruise missiles against two Saudi oil installations appeared to circumvent Saudi defenses, including six battalions of U.S. Patriot missile defense systems.
Esper said it was clear that the weapons used in the attack "were Iranian-produced and were not launched from Yemen," as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels there initially asserted. "All indications are that Iran was responsible," he said.
Iran has denied responsibility.
Asked whether further, offensive action was contemplated, Esper demurred, saying, "This is the first step we're taking." U.S. military officials, concerned that the situation has the potential to escalate, said they were seeking to ensure the response took a diplomatic path or at least paired any military actions with diplomacy.
Earlier in the day, Trump acknowledged that he had received conflicting advice on what to do.
"Going into Iran would be a very easy decision," he said at the White House. "Most people thought I would go in [militarily] within two seconds" after the attack. But there is "plenty of time," he said.
"I think I'm showing great restraint," Trump said. "A lot of people respect it, some don't. Some people say, 'Oh, you should go in immediately,' and other people are so thrilled at what I'm doing."
The administration hopes to use next week's U.N. General Assembly to seek support for an increase in global pressure in the wake of the attacks, especially by European allies who until now have appealed to Trump not to undercut their efforts to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which he withdrew the United States from last year.
At least one U.S. ally sounded relieved at Trump's apparent restraint. Visiting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, standing at the president's side during their joint news conference, praised Trump's "calibrated, very measured response."
Their remarks came after the Trump administration announced a new round of sanctions against Iran, targeting its central bank and sovereign wealth fund. "We've now cut off all source of funds to Iran," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.
Although the sanctions against the wealth fund are new - and potentially freeze tens of billions of dollars in Iranian national assets held or invested overseas - the central bank sanctions largely duplicate existing measures. In both cases, they prohibit U.S. and foreign entities and individuals using U.S. financial institutions from engaging in transactions with the Iranian institutions.
In a separate statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Iran's "act of aggression" and said that "attacking other nations and disrupting the global economy has a price." But Pompeo, who visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE this week, indicated that the price, for now at least, will not include the use of armed force.
"The regime in Tehran must be held accountable through diplomatic isolation and economic pressure," he said. "Our campaign of maximum pressure will continue to raise costs on the Islamic Republic of Iran until it reverses its destabilizing policies across the Middle East and around the world."
In Tehran, the top military aide to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that any U.S. aggression against Iran would "throw the region into turmoil," Iran's Mehr News Agency reported.
Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi said that "the Islamic Republic has turned into a major and invincible power in West Asia and if the Americans are planning any plots, Iran will not leave them unanswered."
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who on Thursday told CNN that a U.S. attack would mean "all-out war," said on Twitter that "Iran has no desire for war, but we will, and always have, defend our people and our nation." Continuing on a theme he has raised for months, he charged that the "B-team" of administration hawks, Israel and Saudi Arabia "seem to wish to fight Iran to the last American."
Zarif had long referred to John Bolton, the national security adviser Trump fired last week, as the head of the so called "B-team." An advocate of regime change in Iran, Bolton clashed with Trump when the president began mulling a possible softening of sanctions as an incentive for the Iranians to negotiate with him.
Any thought of reduced sanctions, as well as a possible Trump meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations, disappeared with the strike in Saudi Arabia.
Land-launched cruise missiles and armed drones attacked state-owned Saudi Aramco facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, inflicting substantial damage. The Houthi rebels who claimed responsibility have been engaged in a four-year war with a Persian Gulf coalition led by the Saudis and have previously launched thousands of rockets, drones and artillery rounds into Saudi Arabia.
But the Saudis and the United States quickly blamed Iran, pointing to the sophistication of the operation, the manufacture of the weaponry and the arrival of the missiles from the north.
Many of Trump's advisers and confidants urged a swift military retaliation. Others stressed Trump's disinclination to become involved in yet another Middle East war, especially in the run-up to next year's election, and the fact that the missiles had struck Saudi Arabia, not the United States.
Although Trump has long praised the Saudis as a staunch partner and a prolific buyer of American weaponry, they have grown increasingly unpopular with both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, not least because of the brutal Yemen war that has left tens of thousands of civilians dead, many from indiscriminate Saudi airstrikes using U.S.-supplied missiles.
In one indication that the recent upheaval with Iran may spark movement toward a peace settlement for Yemen, the Houthis on Friday proposed to halt artillery and missile attacks into Saudi Arabia if the Saudi-led coalition responds in kind.
In a message to The Washington Post, Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdelsalam said that under the new proposal, the group would stop attacks against Saudi Arabia if the kingdom ceased airstrikes and "all military activity"; opened the airport in the capital, Sanaa; allowed free movement of ships; began a prisoner exchange; and "opened the way for a complete political solution."
It is unclear why the Houthis, whose ties with Iran have deepened over the course of the war as Tehran has provided military assistance, would choose to make such an offer now, but it could signal a concern among rebel leaders that the U.S.-Iranian standoff could turn against their interests.
The Saudi government believes the proposal indicates a desire to distance themselves from Iran, according to a senior Saudi official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid assessment. The official said rebel leaders have privately communicated that they had "nothing to do" with the Sept. 14 attack, despite their initial claim of responsibility. Abdelsalam denied that assertion.
Likewise, diplomatic officials with knowledge of Yemen say that the Houthis in recent months have repeatedly voiced a willingness to back away from their attacks on Saudi Arabia and curtail ties with Tehran, which is widely believed to have provided them with advanced weaponry.
But diplomats also acknowledge that the Houthi movement is divided and that some factions favor a tighter relationship with Tehran. The claim of responsibility for the attack is seen as evidence of that faction's power.
This article was written by Paul Sonne and Karen DeYoung Missy Ryan, reporters for The Washington Post.