'Locked and loaded': Military options on table in response to Saudi oil attack as Trump seeks to avoid war

As the plumes of smoke settle over two of Saudi Arabia’s critical oil production facilities – which came under crippling drone strikes over the weekend – both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are deliberating options for retaliation, raising the possibility of much broader instability across the region, although President Trump was quick to point out Monday, “I don't want war with anybody.”

Intelligence officials from both countries have been quick to point fingers at Iran as the orchestrators of the attack, which analysts have deemed as one of the most disruptive in history.

“This is perhaps one of the greatest examples of kinetic economic warfare we have seen in recent times. Iran is suffering from our sanctions but does not want to escalate into an active war with us,” Andrew Lewis, a former Defense Department staffer and the president of a private intelligence firm, the Ulysses Group, told Fox News. “They can do a lot to manipulate the world economy, which will have a negative impact on the U.S. and our allies in Europe.”

According to one well-placed U.S. defense source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “all options” have been on the table when it comes to deciphering the next steps and officials were discussing “appropriate” tactical responses.

“The administration could inflict some serious pain. The question becomes, does the President preemptively launch? Or wait until next week when the United Nations Security Council has a meeting? There will be a response,” the source said. “The Iranians know we know they did it or at least had material support to it. The American public cares about how much they pay at the gas pump.”

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President Trump cautioned on Sunday that the U.S. was “locked and loaded depending on verification” and waiting to identify the mastermind, hinting at Tehran’s culpability.

“Trump has actually proven pretty reluctant to use force. We saw this earlier play out in the U-turn on the mission planned in response to the downing of our drone,” noted Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat who served as a director of global engagement at the White House. “The more likely scenario is similar to what happened with [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s] use of chemical weapons – launch a few missiles and call it a day.  It will be seen by our allies as an appropriate, proportional response. It wouldn’t preclude the possibility of talks.”

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have been at war with Saudi Arabia and its allies over control of the country’s capital city, Sana’a, were quick to claim responsibility for the air assault which sent stocks tumbling over 100 points in early trading Monday and spiked gasoline prices some 15 cents a gallon.

But, officials have been skeptical.

Satellite photographs of the strike points – of which there were at least 17 – indicated that the vehicles originated from either Iran, Iraq, or the northern Persian Gulf rather than Yemen, on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.

Baghdad has dismissed the possibility that the attacks stemmed from its terrain.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also lambasted the “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” underscoring that there was “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed out that while the Houthis were known to have acquired strike systems with the necessary range, the militia had “no advanced technology base” and was “dependent on imported missiles” and other drone technologies for attacks.

The Saudi Ministry for Foreign Affairs told Fox News in a statement on Thursday that “initial investigations have indicated that the weapons used in the attack were Iranian weapons,” but investigations were ongoing to determine the source.

“This attack is in line with the previous attacks against Saudi Aramco pumping stations using Iranian weapons. As the investigations are ongoing, the Kingdom will invite UN and international experts to view the situation on the ground and to participate in the investigations,” the statement continued. “The Kingdom will take the appropriate measures based on the results of the investigation to ensure its security and stability. The Kingdom affirms that it has the capability and resolve to defend its land and people, and to forcefully respond to these aggressions.”

This Sunday false-color image from the European Commission's Sentinel-2 satellite showed Saudi Aramco's Abqaiq oil processing facility in Buqyaq, Saudi Arabia. Black char marks at the center of the facility suggested the attack struck at its heart. (European Commission via AP)

This Sunday false-color image from the European Commission's Sentinel-2 satellite showed Saudi Aramco's Abqaiq oil processing facility in Buqyaq, Saudi Arabia. Black char marks at the center of the facility suggested the attack struck at its heart. (European Commission via AP)

​​As with recent attacks on ships and oil facilities, investigators may never be able to conclusively determine its origin.

“The United States military, with our interagency team, is working with our partners to address this unprecedented attack and defend the international rules-based order that is being undermined by Iran,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper tweeted on Monday afternoon, announcing that he had briefed Trump on the situation after first speaking to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Iraqi Defense Minister Najah al-Shammary about the recent attack.

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Iran vehemently has denied accusations that it executed the drone assault. Some analysts – citing previous attacks over the summer, one in which involved Iran allegedly downed a $125 million U.S. surveillance drone over international waters – said the rogue nation was operating on a policy of plausible deniability.

Nonetheless, Brigadier-General Amir Ali Hajizadeh of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps said – as Al Jazeera reported – that they were ready for “full-scale war.”

And, if the Houthis are proven to have played a prominent role – even at the behest of their Iranian backers – it could send the country’s protracted conflict and humanitarian disaster into a whole new level of devastation.

“The recent military escalation is extremely worrying,” the UN Special Envoy for Yemen’s Office responded. “The Special Envoy urges all parties to prevent such further incidents, which pose a serious threat to regional security, complicate the already fragile situation and jeopardize UN-led political process.”

As for the next steps, defense analyst John Wood anticipated that Washington will allow Saudi Arabia to take the lead.

“It was the Kingdom that was attacked, and it is the Kingdom with the most to lose. The attack clearly shows how weak and desperate Iran has become, and with more sanctions, is likely to come,” he said. “At the moment, the situation is quite manageable. However, if one side or the other should decide to cripple the other oil’s infrastructure, there will be a war that will engulf the whole Middle East.”

Smoke filling the sky at the Abqaiq oil processing facility on Saturday. (Validated UGC via AP)

Smoke filling the sky at the Abqaiq oil processing facility on Saturday. (Validated UGC via AP)

Such a hypothetical war, experts contended, could spark a crisis for the U.S. government.

“It's important to remember that Saudi Arabia was attacked, not the United States. For that reason, the president has no authority to launch strikes without congressional authorization,” Benjamin Friedman, a policy director of Defense Priorities, contended. “No matter what, Washington should not use the U.S. military to clean up Saudi Arabia's mess, but the odds of that happening are much too likely. Presumably, all options are on the table, but military options are likely to create escalation far more damaging than Saturday's attacks.”

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Moreover, Joseph Duggan, a geopolitical consultant who worked as a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, in the State Department for President Ronald Reagan, and in Saudi Arabia for six years at Aramco headquarters, cautioned that the perpetrators of the attack sought to “provoke a United States president and Congress into hasty and costly intervention.”

“We won the Cold War by resisting the temptation to go to war when there were flashpoints such as this. We are much stronger than Iran,” Duggan added. “We should refuse to take the bait of answering a spectacular attack with a showy gesture that is not strategically sound. We need to operate steadily, and usually covertly, to degrade their ability to harm our allies and our interests.”