In Muted Response to Iran Strikes, U.S. to Send Reinforcements to Saudi Arabia

Deployment will include missile defense capabilities and a “moderate” increase in troops.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford hold a media briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Aug. 28.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford hold a media briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Aug. 28. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The United States will send additional defensive forces to Saudi Arabia, including air and missile defense systems and a number of troops, in response to what U.S. officials allege was an attack orchestrated by Iran targeting the Kingdom’s oil infrastructure, American defense officials announced on Friday.  

Speaking at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the deployment of U.S. forces will be focused on enhancing Saudi Arabia’s defensive capabilities after an attack that featured a combination of drones and missiles crippled its largest oil production facility and knocked half of its daily oil output offline. 

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said no decision has been made on what specific military systems or units the United States will send to the region, but noted that it was “fair to say” the additional troops would not number in the thousands. Dunford will meet over the weekend with Saudi officials and officials from U.S. Central Command to discuss what capabilities will meet Saudi’s needs for “enhanced defensive capabilities,” he said. 

The United Arab Emirates has also requested additional support, Esper said, but declined to give further details.

As other U.S. and Saudi officials have done, Esper stopped short of confirming that the strikes originated from Iran. However he noted that U.S., Saudi and other international investigations have concluded that the weapons used in the attack were produced by Iran and were not launched from Yemen, as the Iran-backed Houthi rebels initially claimed. 

“The attack on September 14 against Saudi Arabian oil facilities represents a dramatic escalation of Iranian aggression,” Esper said. 

Friday’s announcement appears to avoid a major American troop deployment to the region. It comes amid growing international pressure to forcefully respond to a strike that sent oil markets reeling. Officials within the Trump administration were divided over how to respond, with defense officials arguing that the United States should refrain from an aggressive military response and instead carry out covert action in conjunction with diplomatic engagement next week at the United Nations General Assembly, according to a senior administration official.

The State department advocated for a “substantial increase in forces,” in contrast to the Pentagon’s less “escalatory” path, the official said. 

Trump has appeared conflicted on how to respond to the attack. After Trump initially declared “locked and loaded” to hit back against Tehran, the president subsequently said he wanted to avoid a war with Iran. 

A congressional aide familiar with the discussions said that Trump wants to avoid a significant American troop deployment, but that such a move could alter the calculus for Iran. “More U.S. troops will create more caution on behalf of Iran because they know if these attacks result in U.S. casualties it will necessitate a very strong response from the United States,” the aide said.

Critics within the Republican party have argued that Trump’s dithering has left Tehran emboldened. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham on Friday called out the Pentagon directly for pushing a “weak response.”

“To Pentagon planners: a weak response over this outrageous Iranian aggression only invites more aggression,” Graham tweeted. “Be Strong Now or pay a Bigger Price Later.” 

And experts argued that the addition of a few more Patriot missile batteries to the region would not be enough to counter the increased threat from Iran. 

“I think it’s a necessary but insufficient response,” said Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, noting that additional missile defense capabilities are necessary for fuller coverage of vulnerable infrastructure and military installations. “We are past time where we should be thinking about this integrated air and missile defense architecture in the region.” 

Iranian officials have adamantly denied that they were behind the attack, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif warned this week that an American military strike in retaliation would result in all out war between the two countries. 

Friday’s announcement of a missile deployment came on the heels of a decision earlier in the day to levy sanctions on Iran’s national bank, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin elaborating that “we’ve now cut off all sources of funds to Iran.

Saudi officials have avoided pointed the finger directly at Iran and appear eager to avoid an all out war with Iran. They have described the attack as orchestrated by Iran, and presented evidence this week that the weapons used in the attack were of Iranian origin. It remains unclear where the weapons were launched. Esper said Friday that they were not launched from Yemen, where the Houthi rebel group has claimed responsibility for the attack. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week in what was billed as an effort to assemble a coalition to respond to the attacks. 

It was on that trip that Pompeo declared that the attack amounted to an “act of war,” but with Friday’s decision the secretary of state appears to have failed to convince Trump to make an early hardline move toward Iran.  

Friday’s announcement may represent only a part of the American response, and Pentagon officials have advocated for also carrying out covert action against Iran, which could include cyberattacks or raids by Special Forces troops, perhaps in conjunction with Saudi forces. Esper described Friday’s announcement as a “first step.” 

After Iran shot down an American drone in June, Trump called off military action against Tehran, and instead ordered cyberattacks against Iranian military installations. These kinds of actions can be extremely effective—the June cyberattack, for example, reportedly wiped out a critical database used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to plot attacks against oil tankers.

The U.S. government could conduct cyberattacks against economic targets—such as key industries, businesses, or financial centers— as a continuation of the maximum pressure campaign, or against military targets to take certain Iranian capabilities offline, said Becca Wasser, an analyst with the Rand Corp. 

“A covert response is tempting because it mirrors the plausible deniability Iran used in the strike on Abqaiq and Khurais,” said Jeffrey Martini, also with the Rand Corp. 

In terms of military targets, these could include Iranian missile batteries or basing infrastructure, Martini said. 

“That would signal the United States is responding in kind to Iranian aggression while simultaneously signaling that the response is not intended to further escalate,” Martini said.

This story has been updated to include comments by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford on Friday night. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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