Did the Saudis urge Trump to call off planned strike against Iran?

After pulling back on Iran last week, Trump called Saudi Arabia's crown prince almost immediately. Coincidence?

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published June 24, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been bitter rivals for political and strategic dominance in the Gulf region. After President Trump called off retaliatory strikes against Iran at the last minute last Thursday night, one of his first calls to a foreign head of state was to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, also met with Saudi Arabia’s deputy defense minister Prince Khalid bin Salman in Riyadh on Friday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, however, said that she was not informed of Trump’s plans to strike Iran on Thursday. The speaker, who is second in line to the presidency after Mike Pence, had been among the lawmakers gathered by Trump at the White House hours earlier to discuss what the administration called "hostile behavior" by Iranian forces.

Tensions with Iran have been escalating since Trump announced his intention to pull out of the 2015 multinational nuclear agreement with Iran, and have dramatically ramped after the Iranians shot down a U.S. drone this week. Just as Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced his intention to leave the Pentagon, the military announced it was sending an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East, after announcing the deployment of 5,000 late last month.

Democrats have warned Trump not to take actions that could lead to the start of a war, but remain virtually powerless and left to make pleas to procedure and order, such as the ineffectual demand that an official declaration of war be voted by Congress.

"The Democrats in the meeting, House and Senate Democrats, were very clear that Congress must act — [that Trump] must have the authority of Congress — before we initiate military hostilities in Iran," Pelosi said before Trump ordered an overnight missile attack on Iran.

Meanwhile, well-known war hawks in the president's inner circle, most notably national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have persistently pushed for military strikes against Iran.

"This administration has been going out of its way to try to provoke Iran to go to war," Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, told reporters on Friday. "And I don't have a lot of confidence in the national security team that surrounds this president, and I certainly don't have any confidence in Donald Trump's ability to keep us out of war."

Pointless caviling aside, Senate Democrats were more successful at stopping another crucial foreign policy goal of the Trump administration this week.

After years of cajoling, Senate Democrats convinced enough Republicans to vote to block $8 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The vote came on the same day that a British judge ruled that the government had broken the law by allowing arms sales to Saudi Arabia that might have been used in the bloody civil war in Yemen. Both U.S. and U.K. arms sales have significantly bolstered the Saudi air force's capability to carry out devastating air attacks in Yemen.

Even with a few Republicans now on board to restrict future arms sales to Saudi Arabia, such sales will likely continue. The administration last month bypassed Congress on the Saudi deals by declaring an emergency. Thursday's vote fell far short of the two-thirds support needed to override an expected veto from Trump.

Saudi Arabia has been an ally of U.S. interests in the Middle East since the 1950s, and the U.S. has been selling arms to Saudi Arabia that whole time. The kingdom has also been trying desperately to contain rising Iranian influence in the region. Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said this week the kingdom wants to avoid war, but called for tougher sanctions on Iran.

“We are consulting with our friends and allies to see what options and steps can be taken,” Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir said this week. "Iran has to understand that its aggressive behavior cannot be sustained."

The Trump administration has stuck by the Saudi regime even after last year's killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which nearly all observers believe was linked directly to Crown Prince Mohammed. Oil prices have surged as much as 10% amid rising tensions this week, and the White House said Trump and the prince discussed "Saudi Arabia's critical role in ensuring stability in the Middle East and in the global oil market.” The White House statement made no mention of Khashoggi’s killing.

As the president haphazardly tweets "we were cocked & loaded,” it is clear that there is no way a Republican-controlled Senate will pass legislation that requires him to seek authorization for military conflict with Iran.

"Obviously, we're not going to get it done anytime soon, and he's going to veto it," Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a member of the Intelligence Committee, admitted.  "But I think it makes sense to send him a message,”

Democrats are pushing back against the Trump administration, the Republican Senate leadership and the Saudi monarchy — to little avail. Meanwhile, the U.S. has to this point only barely avoided  another bloody quagmire in the Middle East. 

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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