Saudi Oil Refinery Attack Raises Fears of “Wider Regional War” Involving U.S. & Iran

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President Trump is threatening to take military action after several large Saudi Arabian oil facilities were attacked Saturday by drones and cruise missiles. Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack, but numerous reports indicate the attack may have come from Iraq or Iran rather than Yemen. Crude oil prices soared more than 15% after the Aramco-run plants suffered heavy damage. One of the plants struck is the world’s biggest petroleum-processing facility. According to one estimate, the attacks decreased Saudi’s daily oil output by nearly 6 million barrels. While the United States has been quick to blame Iran, other world powers have not yet assigned blame. In our New York studio, we speak to Peter Salisbury, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Yemen. And from Washington, D.C., we speak with Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink and author of “Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump is threatening to take military action after two major Saudi Arabian oil facilities were attacked Saturday by drones and cruise missiles. President Trump tweeted Sunday, quote, “Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. 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!”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directly blamed Iran for carrying out what he called “an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.” Iran has denied responsibility. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted, quote, “Having failed at 'max pressure,' Secretary Pompeo’s turning to 'max deceit,'” he said.

Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility, saying it was done in retaliation for the devastating Saudi blockade in Yemen. But numerous reports indicate the attack may have come from the direction of Iraq or Iran rather than Yemen.

One of the Saudi plants struck is the world biggest petroleum-processing facility. Crude oil prices soared more than 15% after the plants suffered heavy damage. According to one estimate, the attacks decreased Saudi’s daily output by nearly 6 million barrels, cut it in half.

While the United States has been quick to blame Iran, other world powers have not yet assigned blame. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Germany is still determining who carried out the attack.

HEIKO MAAS: [translated] The Houthis have taken responsibility for these attacks. At the moment, we’re analyzing, along with our partners, who is responsible for this attack and how it could happen. We need to do so with the necessary calm, but the situation is extraordinarily worrying, because this really is the last thing we need in this conflict right now.

AMY GOODMAN: The attack came just ahead of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said President Trump is open to meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with no preconditions. But on Sunday, Trump blamed what he called “the fake news” for essentially reporting what Pompeo publicly said.

To talk more about the escalating crisis in the Middle East, we’re joined by two guests. Here in New York, Peter Salisbury is with us, of the International Crisis Group. He’s senior analyst for Yemen. And joining us in Washington, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink. She was in Iran earlier this year, author of several books, including Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. Her latest book is titled Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Peter Salisbury, let’s start with you. What do you understand took place this weekend?

PETER SALISBURY: Well, the fact that we have right now is that one of the world’s largest petroleum-processing facilities was hit. The Houthis have claimed it. The U.S. has said publicly that they believe Iran was behind the attack. And we’re now seeing U.S. officials briefing that the attack came from either Iraq or Iran. We really don’t have more facts than these.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what is known at this point.

PETER SALISBURY: What is known, again, is that the facility was hit. What it was hit by isn’t even known yet. So, initially, what we were told was there were drone strikes. Now we’re told that they were missile strikes. And what is possible, there was some sort of combination of both, and even potentially from both directions. We’re at a real trigger point, though, here. And what we’ve seen is the U.S. saying that they want the Saudis to come out and say what they think happened. And if the Saudis come out and say this was Iran, then the expectation is that they will take some sort of retaliatory action.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, President Trump said “locked and loaded.”

PETER SALISBURY: “Locked and loaded.”

AMY GOODMAN: Basically awaiting Saudi Arabia’s direction.

PETER SALISBURY: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States awaiting what Saudi Arabia is telling us to do.

PETER SALISBURY: Absolutely. And this is reminiscent of attacks earlier this year on oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, where the U.S. came out pretty strongly and said this was Iran, and the UAE, in the end, said that they could not ascertain who was behind the attacks, because of the potential cost of retaliation against Iran, that would lead, in turn, to retaliation against the UAE. So the decision point really sits with the Saudis right now in terms of what happens next.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin of CodePink in Washington, D.C., your response to what’s taken place this weekend and President Trump saying the U.S. is “locked and loaded”? And Secretary of State Pompeo — now, mind you, the very serious Iran hawk, not that Pompeo isn’t, John Bolton, was ousted last week by President Trump, and now you see this escalation of pressure Iran. If you can respond to the “locked and loaded” response and what took place in Saudi Arabia?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, let’s remember that Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, with the help of the United States and other Western powers, that have been selling billions of dollars of weapons, have been destroying the infrastructure of Yemen for almost five years now. Of course the Houthis have been trying to fight back, taking this conflict into Saudi Arabia. This is just the most devastating of the attacks. Maybe it was done just by these $15,000 drones, as the Houthis say. Maybe it was done with help from other countries. But this is to be expected.

But let’s go back to the origin of this problem, which is the Saudis and the Emirates getting involved in the internal affairs of Yemen, and the U.S. giving them the green light and all the logistical support and the weapons to do that. What we have to do now is put up the pressure more on the U.S. to stop this support. We have had historic votes in Congress, including a War Powers Resolution that said the U.S. should not be supporting the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and it’s been vetoed by Donald Trump. Now is the time to demand that an amendment that’s put into the military funding act, known as the NDAA, the National Defense Authorization Act, stay in there. And we need to put pressure on the speaker, Nancy Pelosi, so that this becomes a top priority. We have to stop our support for the war in Yemen.

The other thing we have to recognize is that the conflict with Iran is totally manufactured by Donald Trump and that Congress must reiterate what’s in the Constitution. He does not have the right to take military action against Iran. That is the right of the Congress. And certainly, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia is not the commander-in-chief of the U.S. forces.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Salisbury, you’ve suggested the real danger in this situation is that the U.S. sees Yemen and the Houthis as a kind of easy means to attack Iran. And explain what that means for the people of Yemen.

PETER SALISBURY: Sure, that’s right. So, earlier this year, we published a fairly lengthy report on the dangers of Yemen becoming increasingly embroiled in tensions between the United States, Saudi Arabia, on one hand, and Iran, on the other. The Yemen conflict is resolvable through political means, through an imperfect solution, an imperfect deal of some kind. And what we said was, if the war is allowed to continue, if there is no diplomatic process to end the war, which involves Saudi Arabia and the U.S. speaking to the Houthis, the rebel group that hold the capital, then the big danger is that in fact we see Yemen becoming a trigger point for a wider regional war and being further embroiled in some form of confrontation, and the U.S. perhaps deciding, as has been suggested to us is a possibility, that it should support the Saudis more in their military campaign in Yemen to hurt the Houthis more, to hurt Iran by extension. And we see that as a really dangerous path to be going down.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the devastating impact of the U.S.-armed Saudi and UAE — though UAE says they’re pulling out — attacks on Yemen. What’s happening on the ground, the number of deaths, the cholera and everything else?

PETER SALISBURY: I mean, the really simple answer is that you’ve got 18 million people, in a country of 26 to 30 million people, who don’t get enough to eat on a day-to-day basis, 11 million people really on the brink of starvation and around half a million people literally starving, as a consequence of the war as a whole. You’ve got sort of people using the economy as a weapon of war. You’re seeing all parties to the conflict bombing civilian areas, infrastructure being devastated. We’re seeing a country which if you stop the war tomorrow, it’s going to be hungry, it’s going to be poor, and it’s going to be devastated for some time to come.

But the other point to understand here is, all parties have used the economy, have attacked civilians to further their aims, and none have been successful thus far. So, when we talk about pursuing a deeper military path, perhaps deeper U.S. involvement in the conflict, what we’re talking about is doubling down on a strategy that simply has not worked up until now. And again, sort of as Crisis Group, as an organization that promotes peace, what we’ve been saying for some time is, it’s time for everyone to talk. It’s time for people to sort of rip off the Band-Aid, stop hiding behind U.N. resolutions, and for the U.S., the Saudis to talk to the Houthis and see what can be done to end the conflict. And absent that kind of step, I think we’re just going to see things getting worse.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to the UAE, the United Arab Emirates?

PETER SALISBURY: So, the UAE isn’t out of the conflict. It announced a drawdown, not a withdrawal, and they’re slightly different things. So it’s reduced its presence, particularly on the Red Sea coast of Yemen, where we saw sort of the potential for a big battle for a really important port last year, driven by the UAE. They’ve now drawn down their presence, but they remain in operational control on the Red Sea coast, and they remain sort of bedded with certain allies on the ground. That’s complicating in and of itself, because in August we saw UAE-backed forces fighting against loyalists of the Hadi government, which is supported by Saudi Arabia. So, not only do we have this big sort of conflict between the Houthis, on one side, and the government of Yemen, backed by the Saudis, on the other, we now have this sort of subconflict, this civil war within a civil war in Yemen, which further complicates matters and makes peace even harder to achieve.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, just a few weeks ago, U.N. investigators said the U.S., Britain and France may be complicit in war crimes for arming the Saudis in the war in Yemen. Can you lay out what these war crimes are and what you see here as the solution right now and what you fear most at this point, with President Trump talking about “locked and loaded,” even as it was suggested he would meet unconditionally with the Iranian leadership, and then he says it’s fake news?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, yes, the U.S. has been involved, with other Western powers, of providing the means that the Saudis have used to destroy infrastructure in Yemen, as well as hit marketplaces, weddings, funerals, civilian targets, and these are war crimes, as well as supporting these outside countries that have been involved in the use of torture and in all kinds of activities that have been documented in a very devastating report by the United Nations. I think it is clear that these are war crimes that have been committed with complicity of the outside countries.

But as Peter laid out how it has to move into negotiations in the case of Yemen, the same thing has to happen in the case of Iran. And there are possible solutions on the table, put forth most recently by Emmanuel Macron of France, saying that Europe would extend a $15 billion credit, line of credit, to Iran and is calling on the United States to give waivers to other countries to buy Iranian oil. You know, it’s crazy that the United States has the ability to say to the rest of the world, “You can’t buy Iranian oil.” And there are two countries, China and Syria, that continue to buy that oil. But the United States must lift those waivers. And it has been speculated that Trump is contemplating that, and John Bolton was totally against that, which is one of the reasons that he was fired. But I think lifting those waivers is essential for easing the conflict right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, if you could comment, Medea Benjamin, on the latest Israeli attacks on Iranian interests in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon? Now, of course, Israel is having its snap elections tomorrow, not clear what will happen out of that, but leading up to it, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, saying he’s going to annex a third of the West Bank. But all of that together with what’s happening right now?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, that’s right. The Israelis have been trying to goad the United States into a military attack on Iran’s nuclear research facilities. Let’s remember that it is Israel that has nuclear weapons, and Iran does not have nuclear weapons. But this pressure coming from Israel, given how close the Trump administration is to the Israelis, and the Israelis’ actual bombing of Iranian forces in these different areas, has really escalated this conflict. I think we should think of this as akin to 1914, before the First World War, where any incident, whether it’s provoked by the Israelis, by the Saudis, can drag the United States into a war that will be absolutely catastrophic for the entire region. And we must stop that from happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to follow this story. Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink, in Iran earlier this year, author of a number of books, including Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. Her latest, Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And Peter Salisbury, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Yemen.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Covering Climate Now. Two hundred fifty news organizations around the country are focusing on climate this week, leading up to the U.N. climate summit on September 23rd at the United Nations and this week’s Global Climate Strike on September 20th. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Emotion in Motion” by the musician Ric Ocasek, best known for starting the band The Cars. He died on Sunday here in New York.

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