By Erin Viner
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud have approved the deployment of additional U.S. troops and equipment to the Kingdom, in the wake of the last month’s attacks on its Aramco oil facilities, according to the state SPA news agency.
The United States announced the deployment of additional American military forces to the Persian Gulf state on October 11, as part of what it says are defensive efforts to bolster the Kingdom’s defenses after the September 14th drone and missile strikes on the Abqaiq oil facility and the Khurais oil field, which both Washington and Riyadh have blamed on Iran.
In an exclusive published by the Reuters news agency today, two U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity revealed that Washington carried out a secret cyber operation against Iran in the wake of the attacks in late September, aimed at Tehran’s ability to spread “propaganda.” One of the officials said the strike affected physical hardware, but declined to provide further details.
Tehran denies responsibility for the assaults on the Saudi targets, which included the world’s largest crude oil-processing facility and forcing it to halve output. The strikes rattled global energy markets, affected worldwide oil supply and exposed major gaps in Saudi Arabia’s air defenses.
In a statement to TV7, the Pentagon confirmed that together with previous deployments, the latest “constitutes an additional 3,000 forces that have been extended or authorized within the last month.” Moreover, TV7’s source verified that “Since May, the Department of Defense has increased the number of forces by approximately 14,000 to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility as an investment into regional security.”
In a statement attributed to Chief Spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon informed TV7 that “At the request of U.S. Central Command [USCENTCOM],” in addition to the troops, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also authorized shipment of “two Fighter Squadrons, one Air Expeditionary Wing (AEW), two Patriot Anti-Missile Batteries and one Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” According to Hoffman, Secretary Esper informed Saudi Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Muhammad bin Salman that the move was undertaken “to assure and enhance the defense of Saudi Arabia.”
During a later press briefing, Secretary Esper revealed that the U.S. deployments are specifically designed to counter Iranian aggression in the region. “We thought it was important to continue to deploy forces to deter and defend and to send the message to the Iranians: Do not strike another sovereign state, do not threaten American interests, American forces, or we will respond,” Esper stressed.
President Donald Trump insists the United States will not bear the expense of the deployment to Saudi Arabia, which came on the heels of his decision to withdraw troops from Syria. When asked during a Washington press conference, “Mr. President, why are you sending more troops to Saudi Arabia when you just said it’s a mistake to be in the Middle East?” Trump first responded by emphasizing bilateral ties with Riyadh. “The relationship has been very good. And they buy hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of merchandise from us, not only military equipment. In military equipment, about $110 billion. It’s millions of jobs.” The U.S. leader then added, “Now, with that being said, we are sending troops and other things to the Middle East to help Saudi Arabia. But are you ready? Saudi Arabia, at my request, has agreed to pay us for everything we’re doing. That’s a first. But Saudi Arabia – and other countries, too, now – but Saudi Arabia has agreed to pay us for everything we’re doing to help them. And we appreciate that.”
It remains unclear whether some of the newly-announced troops might replace other American forces, who may depart the region in the coming weeks or months. The Department of Defense has yet to announce how much longer the USS Abraham Lincoln and its strike group will remain stationed in the Middle East, and whether the vessel would be replaced by another aircraft carrier if and when it eventually wraps up its Middle East assignment. When asked for comment, the U.S. Department of Defense told TV7 that “the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group continues to operate in the USCENTCOM area of responsibility,” and “for operational security, we do not discuss ship movements.”
Defense Secretary Esper has also declined to say whether the carrier, which itself includes thousands of troops and massive firepower, would be replaced.
Iran has condemned previous U.S. troop deployments, and responded fiercely to the latest decision to send more soldiers. The Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Maj.-Gen. Hossein Salami, told state media that “our readiness to respond to any aggression is definitive,” and “we will never allow a war to enter our land.” Moreover, he added “we will pursue any aggressor,” and “continue until the full destruction of any aggressor.”
TV7’s Pentagon source stressed that “As we have stated, the United States does not seek conflict with the Iranian regime, but we will retain a robust military capability in the region that is ready to respond to any crisis and will defend U.S. forces and interest in the region.”
The United Arab Emirates has also requested U.S. military assistance, but Defense Secretary Esper said the total number of troops to be sent has yet to be determined.
Tensions in the Gulf have risen to new heights since May 2018, when the Trump Administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear accord with Tehran, while subsequently reimposing previous sanctions and slapping harsh new punitive economic measures against the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, Iran and its key regional rival Saudi Arabia have been engaged in multiple proxy wars across the Middle East, from Syria to Iraq and Yemen.
In the most recent flare-up, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani accused Riyadh of being behind two missile strikes on his country’s Sabiti oil tanker in the Red Sea off the coast of Saudi Arabia on October 11, which it has denied. “We did not engage in such behavior at all,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told reporters, adding “This is not how we operate and that’s not how we did (it) in the past.” He then cautioned “The story is still not complete. So, let’s wait and find out what happened before we jump to conclusions.”
Despite Riyadh’s denial of involvement in the Iranian oil tanker attack, Rouhani insisted during a live broadcast on state television this past Monday (October 14) that the attack was undoubtedly carried out by a government, and threatened there would be consequences.