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How tensions over Saudi oil attacks could ‘spiral out of control’

Airstrikes on Saudi oil facilities over the weekend disrupted markets and increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran. The U.S. blames Tehran for the attacks and has reportedly shared intelligence with Saudi Arabia to back up the assertion. Lisa Desjardins reports, and Judy Woodruff talks to Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about the risk of escalation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported, airstrikes on two major Saudi Arabian oil facilities over the weekend are disrupting financial markets.

    It is also heightening tensions between the United States and Iran. The U.S. blames Tehran for the attacks, despite claims by Houthi rebels in Yemen that they were responsible.

    The "NewsHour"'s Lisa Desjardins has details.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A war of words and images after weekend aerial attacks left two Saudi oil sites in flames and smoke.

    A U.S. official shared these images showing damaged facilities and blackened, scorched areas. Today, a spokesman for a Saudi-led military coalition said the firepower responsible was Iranian-made, and wasn't launched in Yemen, contrary to claims by rebels there.

  • Turki al-Maliki (through translator):

    Initial evidence shows that these weapons are Iranian weapons, and we are investigating. And we will announce the findings. Initial findings show that the terrorist attack didn't originate from Yemeni territories, as claimed by the Houthi militia.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The U.S. also pointed to Iran. Secretary of State Pompeo tweeted Saturday that: "Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world's energy supply. And there is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen."

    But that is precisely who has claimed responsibility, Houthi rebels in Yemen. They are backed by Iran, but a spokesman said Saturday the rebels themselves launched 10 drones at the oil facilities and threatened more to come.

  • Yahya Sarea (through translator):

    We promise the Saudi regime that our coming operations will only grow wider and will be more painful than before, so long as their aggression and blockade continues.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All of this follows 4.5 years of war between the Houthis and a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, one that has destroyed Yemen's economy and has led to mass starvation and disease.

    The map here is especially important. The two strikes hit critical oil facilities in Eastern Saudi Arabia. One is the world's largest crude oil stabilization plant. The other is the second largest oil field in the kingdom.

    Yemen sits south on the other side of vast desert with Houthi-held territory to the southwest. Iran is on the other side, directly northeast. Oil markets have felt this latest blow. The attacks knocked out 5 percent of the world's output and triggered a spike in early trading today. It could take months to repair the facilities.

    In Vienna today, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry aimed to calm traders.

  • Rick Perry:

    Despite Iran's malign efforts, we are very confident that the market is resilient and will respond positively.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The attacks are also superheating already boiling tensions between the U.S. and Iran, after the U.S. pulled out of a nuclear deal and instead ratcheted up sanctions against Iran.

    Iran shot down a U.S. drone and has been blamed for bombing other country's oil tankers, with all sides disputing the details of those incidents.

    For his part, President Trump minced no words, tweeting Sunday that the U.S. is locked and loaded, but not indicating what that might mean. Mr. Trump also met with the crown prince of Bahrain today.

    The president told reporters it is certainly looking like Iran is responsible for the attacks, but he added:

  • President Donald Trump:

    Do I want war? I don't want war with anybody. Well, we have a lot of options, but I'm not looking at options right now. We want to find out definitely who did this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Others may weigh in quickly as well. Congress returns to Washington today, and the U.N. General Assembly session opens in New York tomorrow.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump had said earlier he would be willing to meet with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly, but Rouhani rejected that offer days before this attack.

    To break down what this all means is Frederic Wehrey. He's a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It's a global research group. And he has 20 years of Middle East experience from his time in the Air Force.

    Fred Wehrey, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So what do you make of the Trump administration claim that they're confident that Iran was behind this attack?

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    I think it's to be expected, given this administration's focus of Iran as sort of the root of all evil in the region.

    I do think, given the president's recent comments, they're still walking back some of that initial certainty about Iran. I think they want to leave room perhaps for some negotiation. This is a president that has stated he doesn't want war in the region. He doesn't want to get back into some sort of corner where war is…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in fact, he said that again today.

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    Exactly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That he didn't want war in the region.

    So what will it take it? Will we know ever who was behind this? What will it take?

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    Well, no, I mean, the forensics analysis of the projectile. There's obviously a probably additional intelligence about launch activities, about the origin.

    What we saw was the actual impact point. But, again, this comes down to sort of theatrics. There's what's called escalation management. You don't want to box yourself into a corner.

    I think the Saudis as well are very worried about a potential escalation and break into open war. And we have seen them dial back a bit in terms of, was Iran really responsible for this?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, they seem reluctant to say that. They say they want more information.

    So, as you know, the Houthis, the rebel group in Yemen, they're claiming responsibility. Why would they be claiming that they're the ones behind this, if they weren't?

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    I think it paints them as a formidable opponent of the Saudis. They have been fighting this Saudi invasion of their country. They have an interest, I think, in creating that level of uncertainty.

    They have said they received help from within the kingdom. It's probably unlikely, but, again, stirring that uncertainty. There's been an increasing convergence between Iran and the Houthis, but it's important not to paint the who the Houthis as really proxies of Iran.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are they — are the Houthis capable doing this without Iran's involvement?

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    My understanding is no.

    Again, we're talking about a qualitatively different sort of operation in terms of the planning, the actual technical equipment that was used. They have certainly been increasing in the audacity of their attacks, both with drones and missiles.

    But my understanding is, this is a — this would require Iranian assistance.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you have pointed out — and, in fact, you said it again just now — that there's no evidence that the U.S. wants — I mean, President Trump is saying — and he said it again today. He doesn't want to see war with Iran.

    But he's also said over the weekend — he talked about being locked and loaded, suggesting the U.S. is ready to launch a military attack. What would the consequences be if that happened?

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    You would have, I think, I mean, open war.

    There's there's no way to sort of punish Iran discreetly, to keep this compartmentalized. I think, in this sort of situation, you would have the gloves come off, right? Iran can retaliate in different theaters against Iraq — U.S. forces in Iraq and Lebanon. So this could really spiral out of control.

    Now, I think there are ways to reestablish deterrents with Iran short of a total war. There's probably some clandestine signals that could be sent.

    But I think the great tragedy of this is that Trump has really squandered a lot of the international diplomacy that historically the U.S. has used to keep Iran in a box. So he's left himself with fewer options to send that kind of signal to Iran.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So what are the other options? I mean, what can they — what could the administration do if they decide a military — frontal military action is not called for?

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    Well, they're going to try to harden, I think, Saudi Arabia's defenses against a future attack again.

    So this is not going to go — this is not going to be easy for Iran to do again. We have seen Trump already saying he's going to provide intelligence to the Saudis. Again, there are probably going to be some other signals that are sent. Again, potential clandestine means are an option as well, show of force within the Gulf.

    We have already got an aircraft carrier there. And, again, I think this comes down to very careful, delicate balancing act.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about the fact that the president's former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who's known to be a hawk when it comes to Iran, is no longer in the administration?

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    Well, I mean, he was certainly central to setting a very bellicose tenor to U.S. policy toward Iran.

    And I think — I think it could reduce some of the escalation. But, again, you had counsel coming from the Pentagon, you know, de-escalation. So you had a number of other, I think, influences and pressures on the president that are coming from other sources within the U.S. government.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then the president's own instincts.

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    Of course, toward dealmaking.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in fact, you mentioned intelligence-sharing.

    In fact, the United States has been reluctant in the past to do that, has it not, with Saudi Arabia, I mean, to go all in sharing intelligence?

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    Right.

    Well, this, I think, evolves from the criticism over the Saudi conduct in the Yemen war. Again, I think there was some degree of, obviously, logistics and intelligence there.

    But there's been huge congressional opposition to this. Of course, the Saudis are delighted that Trump is now stepping up with this sort of intelligence. I mean, their game is to keep the U.S. in the region to counterbalance Iran, but not enough so it provokes an open conflict, because that would be bad for them.

    They would be in the line of fire were there to be an open war between Iran and the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're saying Saudi Arabia doesn't want a war, out-and-out war with Iran either.

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    No.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fred Wehrey, watching this very delicate situation, thank you very much.

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    My pleasure. Thank you very much.

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