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  • Trump says he would 'certainly like to avoid' war with Iran

    Trump says it 'certainly' looks like Iran was behind Saudi Arabia oil plants attacks, but US wants 'definitive' proof.

     

    Trump speaks to reporters in the Oval Office of the White House [File: Evan Vucci/Reuters]

     

     

    US President Donald Trump said on Monday that it looked like Iran was responsible for attacks over the weekend on Saudi Arabian oil plants, but he wants to avoid war. 

    "It is certainly looking that way at this moment," Trump told reporters when asked if he believes Iran carried out the attack. 

    Without providing evidence, Trump said "we pretty much already know" and "certainly it would look to most like it was Iran" but that Washington still wanted more proof.

    "We want to find definitively who did this," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, where he was meeting with Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

    "You're going to find out in great detail in the near future," he said. "We have the exact location of just about everything.

    "With all that being said, we'd certainly like to avoid" war, he said. "I don't want war with anybody but we're prepared more than anybody."

    Washington has blamed Tehran for the attacks, which cut five percent of world crude oil production. Iran has rejected the allegations. 

    The attacks took place early on Saturday on two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.

    Yemen's Houthi rebels, who have been locked in a war with a Saudi-UAE-led coalition since 2015, claimed responsibility for the attacks, warning Saudi Arabia that their targets "will keep expanding".

    A Saudi military spokesman on Monday said initial investigations show Iranian weapons were used in the weekend attacks.

    In denying it was behind the attacks, Iran has said such allegations were meant to justify actions against it.

    This image provided on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, by the U.S. government and DigitalGlobe and annotated by the source, shows damage to the infrastructure at Saudi Aramco's Abaqaiq oil processing facilityThis image provided by the US government and DigitalGlobe and annotated by the source, shows damage to the infrastructure at Saudi Aramco's Abaqaiq oil processing facility in Buqyaq, Saudi Arabia [Handout/US government/Digital Globe/AP Photo]

    US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said earlier on Monday the attacks were "unprecedented" and the US, along with its allies, was working to defend the "international rules-based order that is being undermined by Iran."

    Esper in a phone call to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the US was studying all available options in how it will respond to the attacks.

    Esper affirmed the US's full support for Saudi Arabia following the attacks, state news agency SPA reported. 

    Trump on Sunday had said that the US is "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". 

    Congress warns against immediate military action

    Meanwhile, members of the US Congress blasted Iran, but expressed wariness about US military action, especially before they have a clearer picture of who was behind Saturday's attacks. 

     

    US politicians, especially Trump's fellow Republicans, were quick to blame Tehran.

    "Iran continues to respond to diplomacy with violence and demonstrate the regime's refusal to act as a responsible member of the international community," Senator Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.

    US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for an international response.

    "I hope our international partners will join us in imposing consequences on Iran for this reckless, destabilising attack," McConnell, a Republican, said as he opened the US Senate.

    Many members of Congress stressed that the US Congress, not the president has the right to declare war and warned against any quick military action.

    Congress, with backing from both Republicans and Democrats, has passed - but Trump has vetoed - four bills seeking to push back against Trump's strong support for the Saudi government, despite its human rights record and steep civilian casualties in the war in Yemen

     

    Senate aides said the administration was expected to begin providing classified briefings on Saturday's attack for congressional staff and members as soon as Monday.

    Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat who is on the Foreign Relations Committee, noted that the US has long been wary of getting involved in conflicts between nations in the Middle East. He noted that Washington does not have a defence treaty with Riyadh.

    "Why should the United States get dragged into a conflict that has more to do with Saudi and Iranian power in the Middle East than American power?" Murphy, a critic of Saudi Arabia on rights issues including its role in the Yemen war, told Reuters.

    Risch warned of US retaliation in case of an attack on US troops.

    "Iran should not underestimate the United States' resolve," he said. "Any attack against US forces deployed abroad must be met with an overwhelming response - no targets are off the table."

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  • How drone attacks on Saudi Aramco might blow up US-Iran tensions

    Attacks likely to scupper diplomacy and risk plunging Iran and US, along with regional allies, into further escalation.

     

    How drone attacks on Saudi Aramco might blow up US-Iran tensions

     

     

    Highly disruptive drone attacks on Aramco oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia are arguably the most significant military operation yet against the US-allied kingdom's critical infrastructure.

    Saturday's attacks on petroleum and gas processing plants in Khurais and Abqaiq, which Yemen's Iran-allied Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility for, knocked down approximately 5.7 million barrels per day (bpd) of total Saudi oil output.

    That is over five percent of global crude supply, a deficit which will take "weeks" rather than days to remedy and is likely to drive up international oil prices.

    The high-profile aerial offensives are bound to further escalate mounting tensions between Iran and its mostly non-state allies in the region on the one hand, and the United States and its close partners Saudi Arabia and Israel on the other. 

    The US has already pointed the finger of blame at Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Tehran of having "launched an unprecedented attack on the world's energy supply", while President Donald Trump later said the US is "locked and loaded', and is "waiting to hear" from Riyadh about who attacked its oil facilities. Meanwhile, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) promised to "confront and deal with this terrorist aggression." 

    Iran denied the US allegations that it was behind the attacks and said the claims were meant to justify "actions" against it.

     

    The escalation is likely to scupper chances of diplomacy and negotiations between Washington and Tehran over a crumbling nuclear deal signed in 2015 between Iran and world powers.

    The US unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran's oil industry and banking sector as part of a "maximum pressure" campaign against it. In response, Tehran has taken a series of steps to scale back commitments to the accord.

    "The operation fits Iran's tit-for-tat pattern of resisting the US since it started to downgrade its JCPOA commitments," Erwin van Veen, a senior research fellow at Clingendael's Conflict Research Unit in the Netherlands, told Al Jazeera.

    "We saw a significant escalation of US-condoned Israeli air strikes across Lebanon, Iraq and Syria," he said, referring to a succession of attacks last month against Iranian-backed forces in the three countries. "Iran can only counter them asymmetrically and this is the response to the US, kind of 'to call off your attack dog'."

    Two scenarios

    Shortly after the Aramco attacks, the Houthis, who have been fighting a four-plus-year war of attrition in Yemen against a Saudi-led and US-backed military coalition supporting Yemeni government forces, claimed responsibility and described the offensive as their "right" to retaliate "the air strikes and the targeting of our civilians."

    Yahya Saree, a Houthi spokesman, told the rebel-backed Al Masirah TV based in Beirut that the Aramco attacks were carried out by 10 drones and in "cooperation with the honourable people inside the [Saudi] kingdom", suggesting the possible involvement of beleaguered Shia dissidents living in the oil-rich Eastern Province.

    READ MORE

    Middle East drone attacks: Is Israel banking on Iranian response?

    In this account of events, armed drones would have had to fly over 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) from Houthi-controlled territory in northwest Yemen across Saudi Arabia to reach their targets in Abqaiq.

    Another possible route for the aerial vehicles could be a trajectory starting in northeast Yemen near the border with Oman and travelling northbound through areas close to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar before they could deliver the explosive projectiles.

    But analysts said either scenario might be contested from an operational perspective, considering the Houthis' likely lack of access to such advanced aerial attack systems, the vast geographical distance from the point of departure to the destination in question, and lastly the heavy air defence fortifications in place along the supposed flight route.

    This raises the possibility of attacks on Aramco oil plants originating in southern Iraq, which lies much closer to the Abqaiq and Khurais facilities and where Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi) positions recently came under suspected Israeli attacks. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied being behind those attacks.

    In late June, US officials concluded that an earlier May 14 drone attack on Aramco's East-West pipeline near the central town of al-Duwadimi - which the Houthis also claimed responsibility for - was launched from Iraq, not Yemen, implicating Tehran-allied Shia militias.

    According to people familiar with the assessment, wreckage from Saturday's assaults indicated employment of a different model of drones and explosives than those witnessed in previous Houthi offensives within Saudi territory.

    On Sunday, a day after the Aramco attacks, Middle East Eye quoted an unnamed senior Iraqi intelligence official as saying that the operation was conducted from inside Iraq in reprisal for suspected Israeli drone attacks against PMF bases. Iraq has denied the drone attack came from there.

    "In both cases, Houthi or Hashd, there is an autonomous motive in addition to any links with Iran, as the former suffered from American support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, while the latter suffered a number of air strikes recently," Erwin van Veen said.

    "It is worth bearing in mind though that Houthis have more agency than some of the Iran-affiliated Hashd groups in Iraq such as Kata'ib Hezbollah, Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada and Kata'ib Imam Ali, and plenty of motivation regardless of Iran."

    Another scenario, suggested by US and Saudi authorities, points to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards directly targeting Aramco petroleum facilities with cruise missiles launched from Iraqi or even Iranian territory.

    Such a course of action does not generally dovetail with Tehran's regional security strategy of indirect and asymmetric engagement with conventionally superior adversaries while maintaining optimum "plausible deniability".

    Implications for Iran-US diplomacy

    The retaliatory offensive on critical Saudi oil installations in Abqaiq and Khurais echoed warnings by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that if the US's "maximum pressure" campaign succeeds in bringing Iran's crude exports down to zero, "then no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf".

    By some estimates, Tehran only managed to sell as little as 100,000 bpd of oil in July, that is roughly one tenth of the export volume on which the annual government budget has been predicated.

    Yet, Trump's recent dismissal of former US National Security Adviser John Bolton - after the notorious Iran hawk "forcefully" opposed reduction of sanctions against Tehran - opened a rare window of diplomacy and boosted hopes about bilateral US-Iranian negotiations on the sidelines of the upcoming United Nations General Assembly convention.

    Along parallel lines, the centrist Rouhani government has repeatedly stressed that talks with Washington are conditional on the removal of US sanctions, with the president himself going so far as to publicly declare that he would meet "anybody" to secure Iran's national interests.

    The opening came after French President Emmanuel Macron's government proposed an extension of a $15bn line of credit to Iran that would require the Trump administration to reissue oil sanctions waivers, thus allowing Tehran to receive hard currency from the sale of its crude oil to certain customers.

    The financial package was partly discussed with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during his surprise visit to the French town of Biarritz on the sidelines of the Group 7 summit in late August.

    The Aramco attacks may cast a shadow over these efforts to de-escalate spiralling Iran-US tensions, even though the White House has declined to rule out a potential meeting between Trump and Rouhani.

    "The fact is that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) wants to eliminate any possibility of talks with the United States at the moment," an IRGC-affiliated intelligence analyst in Tehran told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

    "They do not want this diplomatic process to reach anywhere as they fear it might lead to the Rouhani government committing to halt Iran's regional involvement, nuclear enrichment and missile development."

    Despite Iranian domestic politics and consequent obstacles in the way of diplomacy, most realistic assessments place the ball in the US court.

    "Firing war hawks like John Bolton is a step in the right direction, but if the Trump administration is interested in de-escalation, it needs to stop pursuing hawkish policies and pressure campaigns that ultimately force Iran to choose between submission and confrontation," Pouya Alimagham, a historian of the modern Middle East at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told Al Jazeera.

    "After all, it is not hard to imagine what path a nation with a modern history of resistance to western intervention would take under such circumstances."

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  • 'Howdy, Modi!': Trump to join India's Modi at Houston gathering

    Organisers say more than 50,000 are expected to attend the event but activists plan to hold protest against Modi.

     

    Trump met Modi for bilateral talks during the G7 summit in Biarritz last month [Carlos Barria/Reuters]

     

     

    US President Donald Trump will join Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a gathering of Indian-Americans in Houston, the White House said, in a show of the bond between the two leaders.

    The September 22 rally - dubbed, with a touch of Texan twang, "Howdy, Modi!" - will mark a rare joint appearance between a US president and a foreign leader before an ethnic community, and be the pair's third meeting this year.

    Organisers say that more than 50,000 people have registered for the event, which will take place inside the NRG Stadium of the Houston Texans football team.

    Later Modi will head to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly on September 27. 

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    Indian FM denies Modi asked Trump for US mediation on Kashmir

    The gathering is "a great opportunity to emphasise the strong ties between the people of the United States and India, to reaffirm the strategic partnership between the world's oldest and largest democracies and to discuss ways to deepen their energy and trade relationship," the White House said.

    The White House said Trump would travel the same day to Ohio to showcase an Australian-owned factory alongside Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who will be on a state visit.

    The two joint appearances amount to a day-long attempt to nurture relationships with foreign leaders by Trump, whose brash style and outspoken remarks have frequently unnerved allies.

    The rally with Modi indicates that the two countries have turned the page on an incident in July when Trump baffled India by saying, in a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, that Modi had sought mediation on Kashmir, a flashpoint for conflict between the nuclear-armed powers.

    India has for decades rejected any outside role in Kashmir. Last month, India revoked Kashmir's autonomous status and snapped communications for much of the Muslim-majority region.

    India's actions, which include jailing of thousands of civilians, have drawn criticism from the UN human rights chief and rights groups.

    Reaching across aisle

    Trump and Modi have frequently drawn comparisons to each other, with the two right-wing leaders elected on vows to promote the identity of the majority community.

    Modi government recently excluded nearly 2 million people from a citizenship list and plans to change the citizenship law to ban Muslim immigrants - actions that have drawn parallel to Trump's hardline anti-immigrant stance as well his administration's ban on Muslim asylum seekers.

    But organisers hope to keep the September 22 rally non-partisan, with a cultural performance planned and invited speakers including Steny Hoyer, the number-two Democrat in the House of Representatives.

    The joint event shows "the personal chemistry and friendship" between Trump and Modi, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the Indian ambassador to the United States, told AFP news agency.

     

    "These are two leaders who are used to thinking outside of the box," he said, describing the joint appearance as "unconventional and unique."

    "The event will also reflect the strong bipartisan support there has been for US-India relations," he said, describing Indian-Americans as an "organic bridge" between the world's two largest democracies.

    Shringla said that Modi would also meet in Houston with energy companies before heading to New York for the UN General Assembly.

    Earlier this month, the Indian ambassador tweeted a photo of his meeting with Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist. He deleted the tweet hours later after he was criticised for meeting Banon, who has been accused of pandering to white supremacists in the US.

    Activists in the US are planning to hold protests against Modi, who has been accused of human rights violations in Kashmir and moving India away from secularism.

    Some four million Americans trace their origins to India and the community is among the most educated and prosperous in the country.

    The average Indian-American household earned some $100,000 in 2015, nearly double the US average, according to the Pew Research Center.

    But while Modi will likely enjoy a rock-star reception in Houston, Indian-Americans are not expected to be a major base for Trump as he gears up to seek another term in next year's election.

    Some 84 percent of Indian-Americans voted in 2016 for his rival Hillary Clinton, making them among the most Democratic-leaning ethnic groups, according to polling by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

    During the 2016 campaign, Trump took part in a rally in New Jersey at which he declared, awkwardly, "I love Hindu".

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