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

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

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
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, Saudi-led Coalition Spokesperson
(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.
HASSAN ROUHANI, Iranian President (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
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.
DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States:
How did going into Iraq work out?
There’s plenty of time to do some dastardly
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, International Crisis Group:
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
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
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, American Enterprise Institute:
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
And, of course, all of this is a little bit
of pop psychology, thinking, what are their
Because they’re denying that they had any
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
Shouldn’t you be helping us undercut the United
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
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: What do you make of that,
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
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
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
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
And I suspect that anybody who is in that
position is just going to be in a difficult
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.

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