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 to "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 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. But 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.
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."
A senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the Houthis claimed they attacked Saudi Arabia with 10 drones, but the main oil processing facility at Abqaiq was struck at least 17 times. A separate oil facility was struck at least twice by precision-guided munitions, said this official.
"So you can demonstrate that the Houthi claim does not stand up to scrutiny," the official said. "The Houthis have never employed this type of UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) –neither the UAV nor the cruise missiles employed in the attack can reach the facilities from Yemen. It's not possible."
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."
After Pence briefed Senate Republicans on Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, defense hawk from South Carolina, said he was convinced of Iran's involvement and called it an "act of war."
“It’s clear to me that such a sophisticated attack could not have occurred without Iran’s blessing and direct involvement," Graham said in a statement. “This is literally an act of war and the goal should be to restore deterrence against Iranian aggression which has clearly been lost."
Several Democrats said Trump's decision to withdraw from the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran and reimpose crippling sanctions on Tehran has helped spark the current crisis. They warned against any military action over the destruction of Saudi oil facilities.
“To put our troops in another war in the Middle East to protect Saudi oil would be absolutely ridiculous," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, said in an interview with MSNBC. “The Saudis and Iranians are essentially next-door neighbors ... They got to figure out their own problems."
The Saudis and the Houthis, with Iran's backing, have waged a brutal, years-long proxy war in Yemen as they vie for influence in the region.
Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, told reporters in Jeddah on Tuesday 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.
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.
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 on Tuesday that 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
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Iran response: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heads to Saudi Arabia