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What attacks on Saudi oil sites mean for the U.S. and Iran

In Riyadh on Wednesday, Saudi Arabia showcased evidence it says proves Iran’s involvement in weekend airstrikes on two major Saudi oil facilities. Iran denies the claim, and given the strained relations between the two countries, how should the U.S. respond? Yamiche Alcindor talks to Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute and Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia today. He once again blamed Iran for attacks on Saudi oil facilities over the weekend, saying they have the — quote — "fingerprints of the ayatollah."

    Meanwhile, Iran's President Rouhani said that Saudi Arabia should see the attack as a warning to end the war in Yemen.

    Our Yamiche Alcindor has the latest.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today in Riyadh, the Saudi case against Iran was on full display.

    Defense Ministry spokesman Turki Al-Maliki showcased pieces of missiles and drones. He said they were from last weekend's attacks on critical oil facilities. He also played surveillance video that purportedly showed a drone flying in from the north.

    He spoke in English overlaid with Arabic translation.

  • Turki al-Maliki (through translator):

    The attack was launched from the north and was unquestionably sponsored by Iran.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Houthi rebels in Yemen, south of Saudi Arabia and aligned with Iran, insisted they launched the attacks.

    Al-Maliki dismissed that claim. He stopped short of directly accusing Iran, but said the evidence points to Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

  • Turki al-Maliki :

    It's not coming from Yemen. The Houthi militia and the proxy in Yemen, they are just following the order of the IRGC.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Iran has repeatedly denied any involvement. And, today, an adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted that Saudi Arabia — quote — "knows nothing."

    Rouhani also met with his cabinet, and blamed the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal for mounting tensions in the region.

  • President Hassan Rouhani (through translator):

    We didn't start breaking deals. We didn't start cutting relations. Those who have taken a step back should better take a step forward.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He told reporters he sees the attack as a — quote — "act of war."

    Back in the U.S., President Trump tweeted that he plans to — quote — "substantially increase sanctions on Iran." He also announced that chief hostage negotiator Robert O'Brien will become his national security adviser, the fourth in three years. O'Brien replaces longtime Washington hawk John Bolton, who was fired last week.

    And despite escalating tensions, President Trump, appearing with O'Brien in California today, still sounded cautious about using military force.

  • President Donald Trump:

    How did going into Iraq work out? There's plenty of time to do some dastardly things. It's very easy to start.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    To unpack where we go from here, I'm joined by Rob Malley. He was a top Middle East adviser to President Obama and is now president of the International Crisis Group. And Danielle Pletka, she's senior vice president of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute. She's also a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

    Thanks so much to both of you for being here.

    Rob, Saudi Arabia presented debris that they say is from Iran. What do you make of that? And what should the U.S. do? How should they respond?

  • Robert Malley:

    So, first of all, you know, whether it was Iran directly or one of Iran's allies, I think it's hard to imagine that Iran didn't have a role in this, right?

    I mean, this is a crisis that has been brewing for some time. Many of us had predicted that Iran would react almost in this way, not exactly, but that Iran would take steps if it was prevented from selling its oil, which is a result of the sanctions that the U.S. reimposed on Iran, then it would try to hinder the export of oil of some of America's allies in the Gulf.

    So I think we know this is about Iran. And you ask about how we get out of this, I think let's start about how we got into this. People were not talking about Iran attacking oil fields, threatening shipping, naval activity in the region, violating the nuclear deal.

    Nobody was talking about that up until the president, President Trump, walked away from the nuclear deal, imposed sanctions on Iran, in the name of moderating Iran's behavior.

    So what we have seen is a policy that was designed, presumably or purportedly, to moderate Iran's behavior in the region. And, as many of us feared, it has produced exactly the opposite.

    So let's start from why where we are today. Then we could talk about how we get out of it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Rob wants to talk about how we got here.

    What does Iran have to gain from a strike like this? And because of the tensions that we're seeing in the region, how do you think that's going to play out?

  • Danielle Pletka:

    First, I think Rob asked a good question. How did we get here?

    The notion that Iran is somehow — wasn't a malign actor in the region during the Obama-signed Iran deal and previously just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

    It's true they weren't attacking Saudi oil fields, but they were arming the Houthis and encouraging them to attack Saudi Arabia directly. Half-a-million people have died in Syria at Iran and the Assad regime and Russia's hands. That was all happening at the same time.

    So while Iran has perhaps directed its ire slightly differently to — more directly from Iranian territory on to Saudi Arabia, you know, they're not exactly innocents here.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But what do you think they have to gain by a strike like this?

  • Danielle Pletka:

    That's a very interesting question.

    And, of course, all of this is a little bit of pop psychology, thinking, what are their motivations? Because they're denying that they had any involvement.

    I think that what the Iranians are trying to do is split the Gulf Arabs off from the United States. What they perceive right now is that the Gulf has aligned itself with the United States against Iran.

    They want to make them question that. Was that the right thing to do? Shouldn't you really have a relationship with us? Shouldn't you be helping us undercut the United States? Because Donald Trump is going to talk big, but he's not going to be there for you when you need him.

    And, in fact, that's what Donald Trump has done.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    What do you make of that, Rob?

  • Robert Malley:

    So, first of all, I agree with a lot of what Danielle said in terms — I certainly wouldn't depict Iran as a benign actor in the region.

    We dealt with them in the Obama administration in ways that I'm sure Danielle would disagree with, but it's not as if we consider them to be benign.

    The question that I'm raising is, why are we in as bad a situation as we are today, where we may be on the precipice of war? I mean, if in fact, President Trump decided — it doesn't seem like he will at this point, but he may decide to retaliate militarily — we could be in a spiral, an escalating spiral, which would produce exactly the result that President Trump said he wanted to avoid, which is to go to war to Iran — to go to war in the Middle East.

    So it's not that everything was perfect before and everything's terrible now. It's that things have gotten much worse on the two issues that the administration told us they were going to work to improve, Iran's regional behavior and the nuclear deal, which they said was a terrible deal.

    Today, two years into the — or more into the Trump administration, what we have is Iran more active, more provocative in the region, to the point of perhaps provoking a regional war, and, second of all, walking away from the nuclear deal, so, therefore, being less constrained than it was under the deal.

    Now, to the why Iran would have done this, I think part of it is what Danielle said, that they're sending the message to Gulf countries: We could attack you.

    And, by the way, they know that the Gulf countries can't really retaliate, because they don't have the means to do so. And, second of all, they're exposing the fact, if that's the case, that the U.S. is not going to come to their defense.

    So, I could see that argument.

    The other thing they're doing is, they're sending the message that they're not going to be the passive recipients of U.S. pressure, economic pressure, which they consider to be economic warfare. And they have been very blunt about it.

    They consider this just another means of war, which is strangulating their economy. They will react. And there will be a price to pay. They won't be the only ones paying a price. And Saudi Arabia will pay a price. Others will. And so will the U.S.

    So it's a message: If you want this to stop, there's a way back, but it's a way that means taking our interests into account.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Danielle, how likely, ahead of the 2020 election, do you think it is that President Trump will be wanting to get into a conflict with Iran, given the tensions that that might create?

  • Danielle Pletka:

    I don't think he does want a conflict with Iran.

    That seems absolutely manifest. He's made very clear. There have been two instances, one where a U.S. drone was shot down, and now a direct attack on Saudi Arabia, that people shouldn't misperceive this. They shouldn't think of this as just an attack on Saudi Arabia.

    They should think of this as an attack on the energy security, the continuity of energy supply for the world, something that the United States has always, under Democrats and Republicans, said was sacrosanct.

    The president has, in both cases, chosen not to respond in — let's say, in a similar way. He has not chosen to strike Iran.

    So I don't think that we are spiraling towards war. I think the president is trying to incent the Iranians to come and sit down with him. The problem, of course, is that this is not proving, at least at this moment, to be a terribly effective strategy.

    And it is not deterring the Iranians from their malign activities in Syria, in Yemen, in Saudi Arabia, in Iraq. We could go on here.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    We only have about a minute left.

    President Trump named his fourth national security adviser, Robert O'Brien.

    Rob, you have worked in two National Security Council staffs. What do you make of this shakeup?

  • Robert Malley:

    Well, as with all things with President Trump, it's a bit hard to follow.

    But I think what — this is a new national security adviser. It doesn't seem to be one who will really push his own agenda. So if President Trump wants somebody who will implement whatever policy President Trump wants, implement on that day, he may have found the right person.

    Who knows? Certainly, it's different from the style that John Bolton brought. And John Bolton was in favor of escalation with Iran. So, maybe — maybe it's a sign of — that we will be heading in a different direction.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Danielle, what do you make of that?

  • Danielle Pletka:

    Well, I know Robert O'Brien. He's a very serious, a very decent man, a good lawyer.

    I think he's a conservative. I think of him as a hawk. He's not as bold and as brazen as John Bolton. But as we have seen with all of these national security advisers, we have all seen this movie before.

    And I suspect that anybody who is in that position is just going to be in a difficult place. I have a lot of respect for Robert O'Brien for taking that very, very hard job.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, lots to discuss. Thank you so much for joining us, Rob Malley and Danielle Pletka.

  • Danielle Pletka:

    Thank you.

  • Robert Malley:

    Thank you.

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