Happy Tuesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: Washington on Tuesday was left guessing whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness, ballots and battling opioids: Why the Universal Postal Union benefits the US Sanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth MORE would strike Iran, with Trump himself and top White House officials continuing to up the rhetoric against Tehran.
Vice President Pence said that the United States is “locked and loaded” to defend America’s allies in response to an attack on oil sites in Saudi Arabia.
Pence, echoing remarks made by Trump the day prior, said the administration doesn’t want to go to war with anyone but remains prepared to defend its allies.
“In the wake of this unprovoked attack, I promise you, we’re ready,” Pence said at the Heritage Foundation at the outset of an address focused on trade. “We’re locked and loaded and we’re ready to defend the interests of our allies. Make no mistake about it.”
He added that the United States “will take whatever action is necessary” to defend U.S. allies.
Confirming details: Pence said that it “looks like” Iran was responsible for the attack on the Saudi oil facilities, but said the U.S. intelligence community was working to confirm the details.
He added that Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Trump heads to California Pence says US is ‘locked and loaded’ to defend allies US-Iran next moves — Déjà vu of Obama administration mistakes? MORE would travel to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to meet with U.S. counterparts there about the attack.
“We’re evaluating all of the evidence, we’re consulting with our allies,” Pence said, adding that Trump, who is on a campaign swing on the West Coast, would determine the best course of action.
The background: On Saturday, Saudi Arabia’s Khurais oil field and Abqaiq oil processing plant were set ablaze in attacks that shut off half of the kingdom’s oil exports, equal to approximately 5 percent of the world’s supply.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran, took credit for the attack.
But Trump administration officials, including Pompeo, have instead blamed Iran directly. Trump himself, however, stopped short of directly attributing the attack to Iran on Monday, saying only that it’s “certainly looking” like Iran is responsible.
Trump has also said the United States would wait for Saudi Arabia to determine who was responsible.
What Saudi Arabia is saying: On Monday, Saudi officials said initial evidence shows the weapons used were Iranian and that the attack was not launched from Yemen, but that its origin is still unknown. The Saudis added that they would invite U.N. experts to investigate and decide how to act based on those findings.
Meeting a no go: Iran’s supreme leader on Tuesday reportedly ruled out any talks with the U.S. amid increased tensions between the two nations in the wake of crippling attacks at oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.
“There will be no talks with the U.S. at any level … all officials in the Islamic Republic unanimously believe this,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, according to The Associated Press.
He added that Iran must prove that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure policy” is not “worth a penny for the Iranian nation.”
“That’s why all Iranian officials, from the president and the foreign minister to all others have announced that we do not negotiate [with the U.S.] either bilaterally or multilaterally.”
The leader’s comments come after speculation that President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would meet in New York later this month at the United Nations General Assembly.
Mounting tensions: If Iran were responsible for the attack, Pence said, it would “just be the latest in a series of escalations instigated by the Islamic Republic.”
Pence rattled off examples of Iran’s destabilizing behavior, citing Iran’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and its breach of low-enriched uranium caps put in place by the 2015 nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew from last year despite objections from U.S. allies.
U.S.-Iran tensions skyrocketed this summer as Trump tightened sanctions and Iran breached key limits of the nuclear deal for the first time. In June, Trump said he came within minutes of launching a military strike on Iran in response to Iran shooting down a U.S. surveillance drone.
In the days before the attack on Saudi oil facilities, however, tensions appeared to be trending down. Administration officials had said Trump was open to a meeting with the Iranians with no preconditions, and anticipation was building for a meeting at next week’s United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York.
REPUBLICANS WARY OF ACTION ON IRAN: Senate Republicans are counseling President Trump to further analyze the attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities before responding, suggesting a wariness for U.S. military action against Iran.
“We’re not anywhere near that point,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischTrump at a pivotal crossroads on Iran Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn’t want war with Iran | Pentagon chief calls attack on Saudi oil facilities ‘unprecedented’ | Administration weighs response | 17th US service member killed in Afghanistan this year Bolton exit provokes questions about Trump shift on Iran MORE (R-Idaho) said Tuesday when asked if he’d support a military strike. “We’re still in the analysis situation. The briefing book that’s been put together lays out the facts, and it’s only after the facts are looked at, analyzed, conclusions reached that decisions will be made.”
Senators get briefing: The comments Tuesday came as the Trump administration provided senators a briefing book on the attacks to review inside a secure room in the Senate basement and as Vice President Pence briefed Republicans on the situation at their weekly caucus lunch.
Senators also expect a closed-door briefing as soon as Wednesday, though it has not been officially announced.
More lawmaker reaction: Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamWe’ve lost sight of the real scandal The Hill’s Morning Report – What is Trump’s next move on Iran? The Memo: Times correction gives GOP lifeline in latest Kavanaugh controversy MORE (R-S.C.) on Tuesday urged Trump to take “decisive action” against Iran.
“The problems with Iran only get worse over time so it is imperative we take decisive action to deter further aggression by the Ayatollah and his henchman,” Graham tweeted.
The South Carolina lawmaker pointed to Trump’s response when Iran shot down a U.S. military drone in June as a case of not acting decisively enough.
“The measured response by President @realDonaldTrump regarding the shooting down of an American drone was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness,” he said.
Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoGOP senator: Iran is behind attack on Saudi Arabia House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge Lobbying World MORE (R-Wyo.), meanwhile, said he thinks Iran was behind the attacks but believes sanctions are a more appropriate response than military action.
Barrasso, who is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN that he reviewed the classified briefing on the incident Tuesday morning and came to the conclusion that Iran was behind the attack.
When asked if confirmation of Iranian involvement would warrant U.S. military retaliation, the Republican senator said the country should instead focus on the sanctions.
“As of this point, no. I think we need to continue with the sanctions,” he said. “They are biting. They are punishing. They’re making a difference.”
Other opinions: Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleySenator Josh Hawley reacts to Saudi oil attacks Senator Josh Hawley talks push to regulate big tech The Hill’s Morning Report – What is Trump’s next move on Iran? MORE (R-Mo.) urged the administration to exercise restraint regarding Iran, saying the U.S. should be mindful of protecting its own interests.
“We shouldn’t attack anybody on behalf of Saudi Arabia for Saudi Arabia’s national interests,” Hawley said during an appearance on Hill.TV.
Hawley argued that the U.S. should instead look to “preserve the security of the American people and the prosperity of our middle class.”
PENTAGON IDENTIFIES 17TH US COMBAT DEATH IN AFGHANISTAN: The Pentagon on Tuesday identified the U.S. service member that was killed in action a day prior in Afghanistan.
Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy W. Griffin, 40, of Greenbrier, Tenn., was killed on Monday by small arms fire when his unit was engaged in combat operations in Wardak Province, according to a Defense Department statement.
Griffin was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., which had been supporting Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. That operation is part of the NATO-led Operation Resolute Support.
Griffin’s death, which is under investigation, is the 17th American combat death in Afghanistan this year.
The death rate for U.S. troops in the country is at a five-year high, a figure reached earlier this month after two service members were killed by small-arms fire.
The death rate has been far higher for Afghan forces and civilians in 2019, numbering in the hundreds.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump at a pivotal crossroads on Iran Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn’t want war with Iran | Pentagon chief calls attack on Saudi oil facilities ‘unprecedented’ | Administration weighs response | 17th US service member killed in Afghanistan this year Overnight Energy: Top presidential candidates to skip second climate forum | Group sues for info on ‘attempts to politicize’ NOAA | Trump allows use of oil reserve after Saudi attacks MORE and Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright are among the speakers for Day 3 of the Air Force Association’s 2019 Air, Space and Cyber Conference. Livestream beginning at 8:30 a.m. at https://bit.ly/2mlFiQd.
Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Denise Natali will speak at the United States Institute of Peace forum on “Resetting Priorities to Address Violent Extremist Threats,” at 9 a.m. in Washington, D.C.
Vice Commander of Air Force Space Command Lt. Gen. David Thompson will join a Washington Space Business Roundtable discussion on “SATCOM DoD Requirements, Capabilities, and Acquisition,” at 11:30 a.m. in Washington, D.C.
— The Hill: Trump at a pivotal crossroads on Iran
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— The Hill: 26 killed in bombing at rally for Afghan president
— The Hill: Two insurgents killed in US strike on al-Shabaab in Somalia
— The Hill: Opinion: Iran’s drone attacks are a threat to Trump, militarily and politically
— The Hill: Opinion: US-Iran next moves — Déjà vu of Obama administration mistakes?