Trump mixing diplomacy with hunt for narrow options to punish Iran after Saudi attacks

By Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver  |  The Hill

President Trump, faced with rising tensions in the Middle East, worked on Tuesday to balance international diplomacy with potential punishment, including military action, aimed at Iran following Saturday’s sophisticated missile and drone strikes against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.

The president on Tuesday received a menu of possible actions against Iran, and asked for additional ideas, NBC News reported. Trump is interested in a narrowly focused response that would not draw the United States into a military conflict with Iran. One option is a strike by Saudi Arabia, supported by U.S. intelligence.

The administration is weighing a range of options for a retaliatory response against Iran, including a cyberattack or physical strike on Iranian oil facilities or Revolutionary Guard assets, according to NBC News. U.S military action did not appear imminent, and officials stressed that no decisions had been made about next steps. However, the Defense Department is working through options to increase its presence in the region, officials said. Iran has denied its involvement in Saturday’s strikes.

Reuters: U.S. believes Saudi oil attacks came from southwestern Iran.

USA Today: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travels to Saudi Arabia to discuss attacks blamed on Iran.

Reuters: The Saudi Defense Ministry will present “material evidence and Iranian weapons proving the Iranian regime’s involvement in the terrorist attack” today at a news conference, officials said. Preliminary results showed the attack did not come from Yemen, Saudi officials maintain.

Trump said he would prefer not to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly next week, amending his interest in such a meeting in the days prior to the attacks, which took place deep into Saudi Arabia (The Hill).

 “I never rule anything out, but I prefer not meeting him,” Trump said aboard Air Force One on Tuesday.

Iran had said such a meeting would not take place during the U.N. gathering of world leaders in New York, and it’s now possible Iran may skip the assembly entirely. Iran today warned of an “immediate” response to any action taken against it (The Associated Press).

On Capitol Hill, the Senate Republican Conference received a briefing on Tuesday from Vice President Pence about Saturday’s attacks and Iran’s suspected involvement. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is up for reelection, tweeted that he is persuaded “such a sophisticated attack could not have occurred without Iran’s blessing and direct involvement.”

Graham, who said Iran saw the “measured response” by the United States as “weakness,” urged the administration to “take decisive action to deter further aggression by the Ayatollah and his henchman.”

Trump, who plays golf with Graham and has sought his advice on a number of topics, tweeted a barbed reply: “No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!”

Meanwhile, the outcome of Israel’s election on Tuesday pitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faced voters for the second time this year, against former Gen. Benny Gantz and the Blue and White party, remains deadlocked today as results continue to be tallied, signaling serious trouble for Netanyahu’s decade of conservative rule.

Parliamentary kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman said today he’ll demand a secular “liberal” unity government between the Likud and Blue and White parties, devoid of the religious and ultra-Orthodox allies Netanyahu leans on. Without Lieberman’s endorsement, both parties appear to have fallen well short of securing a parliamentary majority. “There is one and only option,” Lieberman said, “a national unity government that is broad and liberal and we will not join any other option.” His comments signaled a roadblock for the continuation of Netanyahu’s rule (The Associated Press).

On Iran policy, Trump and Netanyahu have been largely on the same page in public. The president earlier this year sought to help the prime minister win reelection, but this time, the White House has seemed determined to stand on the sidelines while Trump has appeared preoccupied with U.S. responses to Iran (Reuters).

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