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Trump stops short of directly blaming Iran for attack on Saudi oil facilities

This Sept. 15 image, provided by the U.S. government and DigitalGlobe and annotated by the source, shows Saudi Aramco’s Khurais oil field in Buqyaq, Saudi Arabia, before the strike. (AP)

President Trump on Monday stopped short of directly blaming Iran for a major attack on Saudi Arabian oil installations, allaying, at least for the moment, fears of a military conflict between the United States and Iran.

Officials in Washington and Riyadh spent the day analyzing satellite photos and other intelligence that they said indicated that Iranian weapons were used in the assault on the Saudi Aramco facilities. But they presented no new information that would conclusively show that Iran directed or launched the attack, which Saudi officials said led to a 50 percent reduction in oil production.

U.S. officials rejected claims by Houthi rebels in Yemen, who receive Iranian support, that they had launched the strike Saturday, describing it as more sophisticated and powerful than anything the rebels could accomplish on their own.

But neither Trump nor Saudi leaders would say unequivocally that Iran was responsible.

President Trump publicly discussed Iran three times on Sept. 16, saying "it's looking" the country was behind an attack on Saudi oil fields. (Video: The Washington Post)

“It’s looking that way,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, during a meeting with Bahrain’s crown prince. “As soon as we find out definitively, we’ll let you know.”

Trump’s reluctance to assign blame appeared to reflect his long-standing desire to keep the United States out of wars, despite his tweet Sunday that the United States was “locked and loaded depending on verification.”

“I’m not looking to get into new conflict, but sometimes you have to,” Trump said Monday.

Asked what message he wanted to send to Iran, the president replied, “I think I’ll have a stronger message, or maybe no message at all, when we get the final results of what we’re looking at.”

“There’s no rush,” he added.

Trump didn’t rule out a military response but made clear that the Saudis would take the lead — and pay the bill.

“The fact is that the Saudis are going to have a lot of involvement in this if we decide to do something. They’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment,” Trump said.

For their part, Saudi officials affirmed that Iranian weapons were used in the attack but also stopped short of singling out Iran in statements that appeared to reflect fears across the Persian Gulf of a wider and more violent conflagration.

Col. Turki al-Malki, the spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, said initial investigations into the strikes on the oil facilities had found that “these weapons are Iranian weapons.” He added that the attacks “did not originate in Yemeni territory as claimed by the Houthi militias.”

Malki said that investigators were continuing to determine the origin of the attacks and that the final results, including a display of weapons remnants, would be publicly shared “soon.”

“We have the ability to secure vital and economic installations,” Malki said. “But we are dealing with a terrorist attack from terrorist groups.”

A Saudi Foreign Ministry statement released later Monday said the kingdom was inviting United Nations and international experts “to view the situation on the ground and to participate in the investigations.”

“The Kingdom will take the appropriate measures based on the results of the investigation, to ensure its security and stability,” the Foreign Ministry said in its statement, which also called for an international response to what it deemed a threat to “global energy supplies.”

“The Kingdom calls upon the international community to assume its responsibility in condemning those that stand behind this act, and to take a firm and clear position against this reckless behavior that threatens the global economy,” the statement said.

Col. Turki al-Malki, a spokesman for a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, said Sept. 16 that Iranian weapons were used in the attack on Saudi Arabia's oil fields. (Video: AL EKHBARIYA)

U.S. military investigators arrived at the attack sites in Saudi Arabia within the past day and were gathering intelligence to learn more about the weapons used, a U.S. official said Monday.

Pentagon officials have urged restraint in any response, arguing against a potentially costly conflict at a time when the U.S. military is seeking to reduce its Middle East footprint, officials familiar with the conversations said Monday.

American officials were working under the assumption that the strikes did not emanate from Yemen, nor do they believe that the attacks were launched by Tehran’s allies in neighboring Iraq, said the official, who was familiar with discussions about the attacks but was not authorized to speak publicly.

Senior U.S. officials were continuing to deliberate over how to respond.

Iran denied any involvement. China and European countries warned against hastily assigning blame. 

The Houthi rebels warned foreigners to leave the area of Saturday’s attacks, which targeted installations belonging to the state-owned oil company, Aramco. The facilities could be targeted again at “any moment,” a Houthi military spokesman said.

“We assure the Saudi regime that our long hand can reach wherever we want, and whenever we want,” spokesman Yahya Saree said in a statement, adding that drones modified with jet engines were used in the operation Saturday.

The Houthis, who seized Yemen’s capital from the internationally recognized government in 2014, have been fighting a devastating war against a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and, according to U.S. and Saudi officials, have received military and logistics support from Iran.

Trump’s remarks stand in stark contrast to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments Saturday, which left no question about the responsible party. “Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” Pompeo said.

The president made clear that U.S. officials were still gathering evidence to present a definitive case, an awkward bureaucratic exercise given Pompeo’s unambiguous accusation.

The Houthis also have not provided any proof to support their assertion that they carried out the strikes using what they said was a fleet of 10 drones.

“We don’t need to provide evidence,” Mohammed Albukhaiti, another Houthi spokesman, said in a phone interview Sunday. 

U.S. allies Britain and Germany condemned the attacks Monday but refrained from assigning blame.

“In terms of who is responsible, the picture is not entirely clear,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, according to Reuters. “I want to have a very clear picture, which we will be having shortly.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said at a news conference that Germany was working with its partners to find out who carried out the attacks, while in Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry also warned against naming a culprit “without conclusive facts.”

For its part, the Russian Foreign Ministry cautioned against blaming Iran, saying that “jumping to conclusions” as the United States often does is “counterproductive,” and called military retaliation “unacceptable.”

Saudi stocks fell sharply after attacks on the kingdom's Aramco oil facilities on Sept. 14 knocked out more than half of Saudi crude oil output. (Video: Reuters)

Iraq’s prime minister said Monday that he had spoken to Pompeo overnight, with both agreeing that the strike had not been launched from Iraq. The United States has limited visibility over Iraqi airspace, since the U.S.-led coalition’s mandate there is restricted to monitoring the movements of Islamic State militants.

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Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday that there would never be direct talks with U.S. officials — the latest in a string of rejections of face-to-face negotiations after Trump hinted at the possibility of a meeting at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly in New York.

He said if the United States rejoined the 2015 nuclear deal then it could be part of multilateral talks. Trump withdrew from the agreement last year and reimposed a trade embargo on Iran.

Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, spoke with congressional staffers from the national security committees about the situation in a call Monday afternoon. When asked about the impact of the strike on the kingdom, Hook responded that the Saudis consider it to be “their 9/11,” according to two people familiar with the call. The comparison to the terrorist attacks in the United States, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, rankled several staffers, said the two people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the details of a private briefing.

Congressional leaders have asked administration officials to hold a briefing on the attack for lawmakers. An aide on the House Intelligence Committee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations, said that is expected to take place later this week.

Cunningham and Fahim reported from Istanbul. Will Englund in Moscow; Louisa Loveluck in Baghdad; Ali Al-Mujahed in Sanaa, Yemen; and Anne Gearan, Steven Mufson, Missy Ryan, Dan Lamothe, Karoun Demirjian and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.

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