US sending more troops to Gulf amid Iran tensions
WASHINGTON D.C. - The Pentagon on Friday announced it will deploy additional US troops and missile defense equipment to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as President Donald Trump has at least for now put off any immediate military strike on Iran in response to the attack on the Saudi oil industry.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Pentagon reporters this is a first step to beef up security and he would not rule out additional moves down the road. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said more details about the deployment will be determined in the coming days, but it would not involve thousands of US troops.
Other officials said the US deployment would likely be in the hundreds and the defensive equipment heading to the Middle East would probably include Patriot missile batteries and possibly enhanced radars.
The announcement reflected Trump's comments earlier in the day when he told reporters that showing restraint "shows far more strength" than launching military strikes and he wanted to avoid an all-out war with Iran.
Instead, he laid out new sanctions on the Iranian central bank. The United States already maintains sweeping sanctions on Iran including on its central bank, with anyone who deals with it subject to prosecution, due to Tehran's alleged nuclear program.
But the new sanctions Friday were imposed for the additional reason of "terrorism," the US Treasury said, adding that Iran's central bank had provided "billions of dollars" to two groups blacklisted by the United States.
"Treasury's action targets a crucial funding mechanism that the Iranian regime uses to support its terrorist network, including the Qods Force, Hezbollah and other militants that spread terror and destabilize the region," said US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
The Qods Force conducts international operations for Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, while Hezbollah, the Shia militant group and political party in Lebanon, is among Iran's closest regional partners.
Iran responded that the move showed that the United States was running out of options.
The United States also imposed sanctions on Iran's sovereign wealth fund, whose board of trustees includes President Hassan Rouhani, as well as Etemad Tejarate Pars, a company that the Treasury Department said had sent money internationally on behalf of Iran's defense ministry.
Layered defense system
Trump said the sanctions were the toughest-ever against another country, and praised his own restraint from calling for military strikes.
He attacked both critics who thought the mogul-turned-president would trigger war and the hawks seeking a military response to the Iranian attack.
"The easiest thing I could do (is) knock out 15 different major things in Iran," Trump said.
"I think the strong person's approach and the thing that does show strength would be showing a little bit of restraint," Trump told reporters during a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. "Much easier to do it the other way, and Iran knows that if they misbehave, they are on borrowed time."
Gen. Dunford told reporters the extra equipment and troops would give the Saudis a better chance of defending against unconventional aerial attacks.
"No single system is going to be able to defend against a threat like that," he said, "but a layered system of defensive capabilities would mitigate the risk of swarms of drones or other attacks that may come from Iran."
The US has not provided any hard evidence that Iran was responsible for the attacks, while insisting the investigation continues, but Esper on Friday said the drones and cruise missiles used in the attack were produced by Iran.
"The attack on Sept. 14 against Saudi Arabian oil facilities represents a dramatic escalation of Iranian aggression," Esper said, adding that the US has thus far shown "great restraint."
In deciding against an immediate US strike, Trump for the second time in recent months pulled back from a major military action against Iran that many Pentagon and other advisers fear could trigger a new Middle East war. In June, after Iran shot down an American surveillance drone, Trump initially endorsed a retaliatory military strike then abruptly called it off because he said it would have killed dozens of Iranians.
On Friday, he left the door open a bit for a later military response, saying people thought he'd attack Iran "within two seconds," but he has "plenty of time."
Acts of war
Trump spoke just before he gathered his national security team at the White House to consider a broad range of military, economic and diplomatic options in response to what administration officials say was an unprecedented Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities.
Iran has denied involvement and warned the US that any attack will spark an "all-out war" with immediate retaliation from Tehran.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence have condemned the attack on Saudi oil facilities as "an act of war."
Esper and Dunford declined to discuss any potential ship movements to the region, although a number of US Navy vessels are nearby.
The additional air and missile defense equipment for Saudi Arabia would be designed to bolster its defenses in the north, since most of its defenses have focused on threats from Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen to the south.
Meanwhile the Huthi rebels, who have repeatedly targeted key Saudi infrastructure in recent months in cross-border attacks and claimed responsibility for the most recent attacks, unexpectedly announced late Friday that they planned to halt all strikes on the country.
The move, they said, was part of a peace initiative to end their country's devastating conflict which has killed tens of thousands of people - most of them civilians - and driven millions more to the brink of famine.
Riyadh has rejected the Huthi claim of responsibility for the attack, saying the group was trying to "cover" for its sponsor Tehran. Iran denies US and Saudi accusations that it arms the Huthis.
A forensic team from US Central Command is pouring over evidence from cruise missile and drone debris, but the Pentagon said the assessment of the attack on Saudi Arabia is not finished. Officials are trying to determine if they can get navigational information from the debris that could provide hard evidence that the strikes came from Iran.
Saudi Arabia meanwhile said it would take appropriate steps to respond to the attack if, as expected, its own investigation confirms that Iran is responsible, a senior official said on Saturday.
Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said the probe would prove that the Sept. 14 strikes had come from the north and not from Yemen, and that Iran bore responsibility.
Saudi Arabia is consulting with its allies to "take the necessary steps", Jubeir told a news conference, urging the international community to "take a firm and clear position against this reckless behaviour that threatens the global economy."
"The Iranian position is to try to divide the world and in that it is not succeeding," Jubeir said.