Key Republicans More Eager to Help Saudi Arabia Than Fight Iran

A Royal Saudi Air Force K-3 Tanker and Royal Saudi Air Force F-15C Eagles fly in formation with U.S. Air Force F-15Cs in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, June 2, 2019.

Royal Saudi Air Force via USAF

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A Royal Saudi Air Force K-3 Tanker and Royal Saudi Air Force F-15C Eagles fly in formation with U.S. Air Force F-15Cs in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, June 2, 2019.

On Capitol Hill, a cautious reaction to attacks on two Saudi oil production facilities.

Key Republican lawmakers want the United States to provide more defensive weapons support for Saudi Arabia after weekend attacks on two oil production facilities halved the kingdom’s oil production — but they stopped short of calling for military action against Iran.

Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attacks, but lawmakers who viewed classified briefing documents on the incident on Monday were broadly convinced that Iran was to blame. Still, there appeared to be little appetite on Capitol Hill for a military confrontation with Tehran.

“I’m not calling for military action at this time,” said Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyoming. “To me, one of the things that was surprising is that Saudi Arabia wasn’t able to detect the incoming cruise missiles and drones—so that says a lot to me about their defensive capabilities. I support making sure we get weapons to them.”

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that “we must protect our partners in the face of Iranian aggression…including making sure they have what they need to defend themselves and our shared interests.”

Saudi Arabia spent $82.9 billion on defense last year, more than any other government in the world except the United States and China, according to IISS’ Military Balance dataset. Iran spent $13.2 billion.

U.S. support to Saudi Arabia has been a toxic subject on Capitol Hill since the murder of U.S. resident and dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. A bipartisan Senate has several times attempted to stop the Trump administration from giving intelligence and logistics support to Saudi forces fighting in the Yemen civil war, a campaign that has been marked by civilian casualties. President Trump has vetoed three separate resolutions curbing arms sales to Riyadh. 

Both Democrats and Republicans expressed alarm about the attacks, citing concerns about stability in the global oil markets. But although a handful of more hawkish GOP members, like Sens. Lindsey Graham, S.C., and Marco Rubio, Fla., insisted that the Trump administration should put a kinetic retaliation on the table, by Tuesday morning there appeared to be no appetite for immediate action. President Trump hit pause on Monday, declining to name Iran definitively as the culprit — although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had already done so over the weekend — and insisting that he does not want a conflict. 

“The fact is that the Saudis are going to have a lot of involvement in this if we decide to do something,” Trump told reporters. “They’ll be very much involved and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”

The comment raised eyebrows amongst critics who saw it as suggesting that the United States act as a mercenary on behalf of Riyadh. 

The cautious response both on Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue hints at a broad reluctance within the GOP to entangle the United States in a war with Iran, even as Republicans have cheered Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of suffocating sanctions on the regime. Tensions between the two nations have been rising throughout the summer. In June, Trump ordered, then canceled, strikes on Iran in retaliation for shooting down an American surveillance drone because, he said, it wasn’t proportional since no U.S. lives were lost; Republicans on the Hill appeared divided on whether the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities were an escalation. 

“How do you separate one from the other?” Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.“It’s an act on a sovereign country in this case. So was striking our drone.”

The muddled reactions in Washington also throws into sharp relief the tortured relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration sees Riyadh as a key player in its centerpiece strategy in the region to constrain Iran, despite controversy over its role in Yemen and the Khashoggi murder. Some analysts have also argued that the kingdom has proven it has limited power to help achieve American objectives in Yemen and elsewhere.

“We known Iran is the bad actor. We also know this is involved in regards to the Saudis in Yemen,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a top member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “So, we need to understand that this is more of an issue that affects the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the manner in which they’re handling Yemen. We have an interest in that.”

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, sowed some confusion about Democratic support for some kind of direct action against Iran on Monday, telling Fox News that “this may well be the thing that calls for military action against Iran.” Coons later walked back the comment. 

“My concern is that this is another step up in terms of the level of direct aggression by Iran and so we should take it very seriously as such,” he told reporters. “But given that this is not a direct attack on American facilities, or American troops or even  arguably American interests, the president has to make the case to Congress before taking any further action.”

Trump is a fan of arms sales as a foreign policy lever, and his administration treats arms exports in part as a means of creating domestic manufacturing growth through increased jobs and production. In the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder, he told “60 Minutes” that slowing or halting exports would be a “very foolish” move that would harm the U.S. defense industry.

U.S. lawmakers have the power to halt such sales under the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, an effort to bring transparency and accountability to the executive-driven process — but at best they have a spotty track record of disrupting sales they don’t like. 

“The U.S. has continued arms sales so Saudi Arabia can defend itself,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a sometimes-critic of the president, wrote on Twitter. “If SA responds against Iran attacks, the US should be ready to support in a non-kinetic role.”

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