President Donald Trump’s national security team was expected to meet again Thursday to consider options for responding to an attack on Saudi oil facilities, according to senior administration officials, but there is growing doubt Trump will authorize a military response to the incident.
Instead, Trump is expected in the coming days to decide whether to send additional US troops and anti-missile defenses to Saudi Arabia, one of several options that stop short of airstrikes or a bombing campaign.
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted that he was ordering new sanctions on Iran, though neither the White House nor the Treasury Department specified what entities would be sanctioned.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to telegraph his options without saying where he’s leaning.
“You may have a very strong hit,” he said in a Fox News interview taped Wednesday but aired on Thursday morning. “We’ll see what happens, a lot of things could happen. If we could have a peaceful solution, that’s good. It’s possible that that won’t happen.”
Administration officials at the White House, Pentagon and elsewhere have grown doubtful that Trump will ultimately order up a military response to the oil attacks.
A senior military official said it is still the case that all options “are on the table” for responding to Iran, but the strong sense from the President is that he is not anxious for a kinetic strike, so other options may be enacted. The official said the President’s strong language over the past days is in keeping with a desire to send a message to Iran that the White House “sees” what they are up to.
Pentagon leadership is prepared to do whatever the President wishes, the official said. But military officials would advocate for seeing if other, non-military options could work.
That includes the package of sanctions, which have yet to be finalized despite Trump’s announcement on Wednesday. Officials have also considered cyber-attacks or movements of troops in the region.
The Pentagon expects to present specific military options to Trump this week that could send more US Patriot missile batteries and troops to operate the systems to Saudi Arabia, according to a US defense official familiar with the latest military thinking.
The US Central Command, which oversees US military operations in the region, “is in consultation with the Saudis to discuss potential ways to mitigate future attacks,” Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for the Joint Staff, acknowledged to reporters Thursday.
Officials this week have expressed concern about the failure to detect the weekend attack on Saudi Aramco facilities.
“The fact we had limited indications and warnings of attack is concerning,” the US defense official said.
Once a policy decision is made on sending additional resources to Saudi Arabia, the US military is expected to provide technical advice to the Saudis on how to better utilize the air defense anti-missile systems they already have.
That technical advice centers around re-orienting some systems to be more capable of defending against an attack from the north, rather than the typical defensive trajectory of defending against missiles launched from Yemen to the south.
In the aftermath of the attack on the oil site, there is a belief among US officials that the Saudis require more air defense systems than they currently have to confront threat of future attacks from the north.
That means the US would have to provide the hardware and troops. While discussions are ongoing with the Saudis, it is not yet clear how many Patriots missiles and troops might be needed.
“A policy decision will have to be made whether we are telling the Saudis how to better utilize their assets to address a threat from the north, or are we going to provide assistance,” the official said.
In July the US deployed additional troops and a Patriot battery to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia to protect US troops there. Other Patriot batteries in the Persian Gulf are already tasked to protect US troops and assets in the region and could not be moved into Saudi Arabia, the official said.
Other military options remain on the table. Those options have been previously discussed as a response to Iran’s aggressions in recent months. Two US officials have stressed that there have not been any new options presented to Trump.
Speaking to CNN on Thursday, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned of an “all-out war” if the US carried out airstrikes on Iran.
“I’m making a very serious statement that we don’t want war; we don’t want to engage in a military confrontation,” Zarif said. “But we won’t blink to defend our territory.”
No decision was expected until Secretary of State Mike Pompeo concludes meetings in the region on Thursday. Pompeo met Wednesday with leaders in Saudi Arabia and was in the United Arab Emirates on Thursday before traveling back to Washington.
Speaking in Abu Dhabi, Pompeo said he had “good, productive conversations” with the Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE and said he planned to brief Trump on what he heard.
“I think I’ll be able to give the President some important information about how it is we should think about proceeding,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo reiterated the claim that Iran was behind the Saudi Aramco attacks, noting that he “didn’t hear anybody in the region who doubted that for a single moment.” He did not present additional evidence to support his claim.
Pompeo said Trump and the US want “a peaceful resolution.”
“I think we’ve demonstrated that,” he said, adding that he is working to build out a coalition.
Pompeo appeared to escalate the episode in remarks on Wednesday, calling the attacks on Saudi oil fields an “act of war.” But he also noted there were no human casualties and said he wanted to work with partners in the region to develop a response.
In recent weeks, Saudi officials have told their US counterparts they are wary of any military action that might start a conflict the kingdom could be dragged into, according to two sources familiar with the discussions. Instead, they have supported the economic squeeze.
The official responsible for leading the national security deliberations is now Robert O’Brien, the US hostage negotiator who Trump named his fourth national security adviser on Wednesday. The two men traveled in California together.
Asked on the return flight from Washington whether O’Brien would be in meetings on Thursday related to Iran, Trump said he hoped so.
“I said, start as soon as you can. Start now. I said if you could start now,” Trump said.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.