Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heads to Saudi Arabia | News Coverage from USA

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heads to Saudi Arabia

Deirdre Shesgreen and David Jackson

USA TODAY

Published 4:02 PM EDT Sep 17, 2019

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is heading to the Middle East Tuesday as the Trump administration again sent mixed messages about how the U.S. would respond to the crippling attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. 

Pompeo has blamed Iran for Saturday’s strikes on the Abqaiq oil processing plant and a key Saudi oil field, where an estimated 5.7 million barrels of oil are produced each day. The attacks, which disrupted more than 5% of the world’s daily supply, have renewed fears of a military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran.

Pompeo is scheduled to arrive in Jeddah on Wednesday, where he will meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, to discuss the oil facility attacks and “coordinate efforts to counter Iranian aggression in the region,” the State Department said Tuesday in announcing the trip.   

President Donald Trump suggested over the weekend that the U.S. was prepared to respond aggressively to Iran, though he has also stopped short of directly blaming the Islamic Republic for the Saudi incident.

Vice President Mike Pence used similarly aggressive-yet-ambiguous language in a speech on Tuesday.

“We are locked and loaded, and we are ready to defend our interests and our allies in the region make no mistake about it,” Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday during a trade speech at the Heritage Foundation.

“Our intelligence community, at this very hour, is working diligently to review the evidence,” Pence said. “And the secretary of State is traveling to Saudi Arabia today to discuss our response.”

The Houthis, an Iranian-allied rebel group based in Yemen, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Pompeo has unequivocally blamed Iran.

“Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” Pompeo tweeted on Sunday. “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”

Trump said Sunday that the U.S. is “locked and loaded” for a potential response to the attack on the Saudis. But on Monday, the president seemed to step back from that rhetoric.

“It’s looking that way,” Trump told reporters Monday when asked whether Iran is responsible for the missile and drone strikes. “As soon as we find out definitively, we’ll let you know.”

Trump, who traveled to political fundraisers in California on Tuesday, told reporters he has decided that a release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is necessary, in part because of the level of U.S. production.

Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, told reporters in Jedah that his country has restored half of the oil production cut by the attack over the weekend. He predicted that production will be fully back online by the end of September.

Markets reacted positively to the Saudi announcement.

A Saudi military spokesman said an initial investigation showed that Iranian weapons were used in the attack. Col. Turki al-Malki also told reporters in Riyadh on Monday that the strikes were not launched from Yemen, as the Houthis have claimed. 

The Saudis and the Houthis have waged a brutal, years-long proxy war in Yemen as they vie for influence in the region. 

Trump has repeatedly offered to meet with Iranian leaders, as part of an effort to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement Tehran struck with world leaders. Trump withdrew from that deal last year, saying it wasn’t tough enough. 

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei flatly rebuffed Trump’s offer, amid speculation of a possible meeting at the United Nations General Assembly sessions next week.

“There will be no talks with the U.S. at any level,” Khamenei said according to Iranian state TV.

Trump also said he would prefer not to meet with Iran at next week’s U.N. session. “I never rule anything out, but I prefer not meeting him,” he said.

Trump spokesman Hogan Gidley said the White House is not put off by Iran’s refusal to have a meeting. While Trump wants a deal, he said, Iran also has to change its behavior, starting with its sponsorship of terrorism.

“We’re not going to begin to have conversations with Iran until they change the behavior that they’ve been a part of for more than 40 years,” Gidley said.

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard and Associated Press


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