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Opinion The Saudi oil attacks are signs of Trump’s Mideast fiasco

A satellite image shows an apparent drone strike on an Aramco oil facility in Harad, Saudi Arabia, on Saturday. (Planet Labs Inc/Planet Labs Inc Via Reuters)

Saturday’s attacks on two major Saudi oil facilities appear to represent a sharp escalation in the struggle for regional primacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A drone strike was said to have knocked out half of the Saudis’ daily oil production. The Houthi rebel group in Yemen assumed responsibility, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pinned the blame on Iran.

This is a claim that Iran denies and that few may take on faith given how often the administration has lied about even minor matters. President Trump and his aides just tried to falsify information about a hurricane. Why believe them about an attack in the Middle East? Nevertheless, it appears, based on the sophistication of this attack, that Iran is indeed the real culprit. The Houthis have their own grudge against the Saudis, who have been waging a brutal war against them, but they lack the sophistication to carry out such a surgical strike without a lot of help from their allies in Tehran.

Whoever the culprit, this attack offers yet more evidence that Trump’s Middle East policy has failed. At the root of the problem is Trump’s decision to outsource Middle East leadership to Israel and Saudi Arabia — unlikely allies united by their mutual (and understandable) antipathy toward the Iranian regime.

Previous presidents have long made their first trips abroad to Canada or Mexico. Trump instead went to Riyadh in May 2017. He was delighted by the reception he received from the Saudi royals, who fawned over him and made sure there were no pesky protesters to be seen. (Protesting in the kingdom can get you beheaded.) In return for an empty promise to buy $350 billion of U.S. weaponry (the actual figure is less than $30 billion, and most of the sales already occurred), Trump gave Mohammed bin Salman (better known as “MBS”) a blank check to cash however he saw fit.

Within a month, MBS had staged a palace coup to elevate himself from deputy crown prince to crown prince, thereby making him the undisputed power behind the throne of his elderly father, King Salman. MBS did a few good things with his unlimited authority — notably letting Saudi women drive — but for the most part he has used his power recklessly and maliciously.

MBS launched a blockade of Qatar, another important U.S. ally, in an unsuccessful effort to pressure its royal family to stop supporting Islamist causes. He locked up some of the kingdom’s wealthiest men to extort money he claimed they had acquired corruptly. He kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon in a failed attempt to force him to stand up to Iran’s proxies in Lebanon. He escalated the war against the Houthis, creating a severe humanitarian crisis in Yemen (10 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine) without dislodging the Houthis. And, of course, he was almost certainly responsible for the murder and dismemberment of Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.

Every step of the way, Trump either cheered the Saudis on or looked the other way from their appalling misconduct. “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” Trump tweeted after MBS locked up dozens of wealthy Saudis without trial. Turns out the 34-year-old MBS has no more idea what he is doing than America’s 38-year-old crown prince, Jared Kushner, who has become his champion within the U.S. government.

Yet Trump keeps covering for the Saudis: He refuses to name MBS as the culprit behind Khashoggi’s murder and he has vetoed two bills to end U.S. support for the bloody war in Yemen. Most significant of all, Trump exited the Iran nuclear deal in spite of Iran’s compliance — just as his friends in Riyadh and Jerusalem urged him to.

President Trump says that sweeping sanctions have fundamentally changed Iran’s behavior. But have they? (Video: The Washington Post)

So here we are with the Middle East tinderbox on the verge of igniting. Iran is signaling that it will break out of the fuel enrichment limits of the nuclear deal and that it will not scale back its destabilizing activities. Israel has responded by stepping up airstrikes against Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. A costly war with Iran that could drag in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States looms ever closer.

In recent months, Trump seemed to be having second thoughts about his misguided approach to Iran. Hence his decision to get rid of national security adviser John Bolton, an anti-Iran uber-hawk, and has signaled his openness to talks with Iran — even to easing Iran sanctions. The attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure will make it harder for Trump to compromise; if the Iranian regime was responsible, it may have just shot itself in the foot.

A sponsor of terrorism and a heinous human rights abuser, Iran deserves an outsize share of the blame for destabilizing the Middle East. But Trump has only aggravated the crisis by blindly backing his friends in Israel and Saudi Arabia. The attack on Saudi oil production is only the latest blowback — and far from the last.

Read more:

Max Boot: John Bolton was bad. His departure might be worse.

Jason Rezaian: Bolton’s departure will fundamentally alter Trump’s Iran policy

Jason Rezaiain: Like it or not, talks with Iran are coming soon

The Post’s View: Trump continues to kowtow to MBS. Congress has a chance to say no.

Max Boot: Yes, Trump is losing it. But don’t pretend he ever had it to begin with.