After oil facilities were attacked in Saudi Arabia on Sept. 14, United States President Donald Trump tweeted suggestions that America could retaliate against Iran on Saudi Arabia’s behalf. While the culprit behind the attacks is still unverified, Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility. Riyadh officials, however, rushed to declare that Iran was behind the event, a coordinated effort of 19 drone attacks which crippled Saudi oil output. Roughly five percent of the world’s oil supplies come from the Middle Eastern nation and when its production was halved during the raid on Saudi Aramco’s plants, global prices rose in response.
For Trump, the moment was the perfect opportunity to go after Iran, his favourite foe in the region.
“Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked,” Donald Trump tweeted. “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”
Almost immediately after tweeting his thoughts on the catastrophe, observers and Congressional politicians noted that it seemed as if the president was suggesting that he would await orders from Riyadh on how to respond. He followed up by declaring that the American military was “locked and loaded,” which understandably sent fears of another war rising.
“We have a lot of options, but I’m not looking at options right now,” Trump later clarified. “We want to find definitively who did this. We’re dealing with Saudi Arabia. … We’ll see what happens.”
Ultimately, he removed his hand from the trigger and instead opted to impose new sanctions on Tehran. Although the targets of the sanctions has yet to be revealed, it is the latest move from the Trump administration to suffocate the already-ailing Iranian economy. Notably, the sanctions come without direct confirmation that Iran was involved in either the planning or execution of the attack and despite denials from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
The response from the U.S. Congress could not be more clear: any military use must be authorised by the legislative branch.
“What struck me about that tweet was not just that it’ s obviously wrong to allow Saudi Arabia to dictate our foreign policy, but that the president doesn’t seem to be aware of how submissive it makes him look to say that,” said Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey. “It is a big deal to attack oil fields; it does affect more than just Saudi Arabia’ s interests. But whatever we do, we have to do what’ s best for us, and we have to recognise that the Saudis have a profound bias.”
It’s not the first time Congress has opposed Trump on the issue of his relationship with Saudi Arabia. It has repeatedly condemned arms sales to the kingdom following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and tried to prevent further support through legislation. Importantly, measures passed by both houses had overwhelming bipartisan support, however not enough to override Trump’s veto of the bills.
Trump has often flaunted his relationship with the Saudi royal family and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in particular.
“They buy apartments from me,” Trump boasted during a 2015 campaign rally. “They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
All of the 45th floor of Trump Tower in New York City was purchased by the Saudi government in 2001 for an estimated $4.5 million. More recently as president, he has touted the billions Saudi Arabia spends on weapons and defence systems.
Back to Sanctions
In addition to Trump’s eagerness to defend his business partners, his rush to point the finger at Iran was unusual. Although he did not name Iran in his initial tweets, it was not long before he began parroting the message that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo started. Pompeo, who was quickly dispatched to Riyadh for a firsthand look at the crisis, went a step further and declared the attack an “act of war.”
The immediacy behind declaring unwavering support of Saudi Arabia without having seen any evidence combined with the speedy accusation of Iranian involvement will not only damage Trump’s already weak image in Congress, but also with Iran. Only a week ago, he was said to have been considering removing some sanctions and considering a $15 billion economic relief package for Iran. It was an unconfirmed sign that with National Security Advisor John Bolton fired, Trump might have been on the path to repairing relations with Tehran.
Of course, all of that is most likely off the table now that Trump and Pompeo are steadfast in supporting the Saudi claim that Iran was responsible for the oil attacks. Trump’s defence of Saudi Arabia and willingness to await orders for retaliation is concerning and rightfully so. The possibility of a war with little evidence has little support among both parties and the American people.