Overnight Defense

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

Happy Monday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, 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 found itself in a familiar place Monday, albeit one that seemed far off a week ago - wondering whether President Trump would launch a military strike against Iran.

Attacks on Saudi oil facilities raised the specter of U.S. military action, as did Trump threatened over the weekend that the United States was "locked and loaded" to respond.

On Monday afternoon, Trump said he wants to avoid war with Iran.

"Do I want war? I don't want war with anybody," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office during a meeting with the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Bahrain, later adding: "We have the strongest military in the world."

He also would not definitively blame Iran for the attacks, despite other administration officials indicating earlier that Iran was responsible.

"Well, it's looking that way," Trump told reporters when asked if Iran was responsible for the Saudi attacks.

"We'll let you know definitively," Trump continued. "That's being checked out right now."

What happened: 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, or 5 percent of the world's supply, causing oil prices to spike.

Yemen's Houthi rebels, who Saudi Arabia is fighting in that country's civil war, took credit for the attack, saying they carried it out with 10 drones.

But Trump administration officials quickly blamed Iran, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeting Saturday that "there is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen."

Trump ups rhetoric: On Twitter before the Oval Office meeting, Trump ramped up his rhetoric against Iran.

"Remember when Iran shot down a drone, saying knowingly that it was in their 'airspace' when, in fact, it was nowhere close," Trump tweeted Monday.

"They stuck strongly to that story knowing that it was a very big lie. Now they say that they had nothing to do with the attack on Saudi Arabia. We'll see?"

Meeting ruled out: Last week, Washington was aflutter with speculation that Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would meet at next week's United Nations General Assembly meeting.

On Monday, Iran ruled that out.

"Neither is such an event on our agenda, nor will it happen. Such a meeting will not take place," Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on state-run media.

Iran's comments come after Trump over the weekend denied he was willing to meet with Iran with no conditions, despite Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin saying last week he was willing to meet with no preconditions.

Pentagon's role: Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other officials briefed Trump on Monday about the recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities, Esper said.

Esper, in the Pentagon's first public statement on the Saturday attacks, tweeted that he had just returned "from a meeting at the White House where [Department of Defense] DoD leadership and others briefed the Commander in Chief on the situation."

"The United States military, with our interagency team, is working with our partners to address this unprecedented attack and defend the international rules-based order that is being undermined by Iran," he said.

Esper also said he spoke over the weekend with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Iraqi Minister of Defense Najah al-Shammari about the incident.

Lawmaker response: Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) said the U.S. may need to use military force against Iran if intelligence reports determine Tehran was behind recent attacks on two Saudi oil refineries.

"This may well be the thing that calls for military action against Iran if that's what the intelligence supports," Coons said Monday on "Fox & Friends."

Coons said it "seems credible" that Iran is responsible for Saturday's attacks, arguing that the Houthis -- the Yemeni rebels supported by Iran -- don't have the "sort of advanced drones that carried out" the strikes.

Presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) took aim at Trump after he said the U.S. is "locked and loaded" and "waiting to hear from the Kingdom."

"Trump awaits instructions from his Saudi masters," she tweeted. "Having our country act as Saudi Arabia's bitch is not 'America First.'"

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Saturday the U.S. should consider striking Iranian oil refineries in response to the attacks.

"It is now time for the U.S. to put on the table an attack on Iranian oil refineries if they continue their provocations or increase nuclear enrichment," Graham tweeted.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) warned Iran on Monday that it "should not underestimate the United States' resolve," but indicated the threshold for retaliation should be an attack on U.S. forces.

"Any attack against U.S. forces deployed abroad must be met with an overwhelming response--no targets are off the table," Risch said in a statement.

"Iran will not stop their misbehavior until the consequences become more real, like attacking their refineries, which will break the regime's back," he added.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who was the lead Senate sponsor of an amendment to the annual defense policy bill meant to block Trump from taking military action against Iran, called for the amendment to be included in the final version of the bill currently being negotiated.

"Iran's behavior in the region is highly problematic on many levels, but Saudi Arabia's oil interests do not determine whether the United States goes to war - the U.S. Congress does," Udall said in a statement Monday. "Rather than threats of war, the right move is active diplomacy to lower tensions in the region."

 

2019'S 17TH US COMBAT DEATH IN AFGHANISTAN: A U.S. service member was killed in action Monday in Afghanistan, the NATO-led mission in the country said.

The news release from Operation Resolute Support provided no details of the incident, noting only that they "were killed in action."

The identity of the U.S. service member is being withheld until 24 hours after next of kin is notified, in accordance with Defense Department policy.

Timing: The death, the 17th U.S. combat death in the country this year, comes just more than a week after President Trump simultaneously revealed and canceled plans for a summit with Taliban leaders to be held at Camp David.

Trump has since said talks are "dead," blaming an attack claimed by the Taliban that killed a U.S. soldier and 11 others.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

A Senate Armed Services Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on southeastern Europe with testimony from outside experts at 3 p.m. at the Russell Senate Office Building, room 222. https://bit.ly/2kLW1vi

Under Secretary of Defense for policy John Rood will discuss "The Status of Missile Defense for U.S. National Security" at a Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance congressional roundtable. Livestream at https://bit.ly/2kkCd25.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and acting Secretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan are among the speakers for Day 2 of the Air Force Association's 2019 Air, Space and Cyber Conference. Livestream at https://bit.ly/2mlFiQd.

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Trump confirms death of Osama bin Laden's son

-- The Hill: Kim invited Trump to visit North Korea amid stalled nuclear talks: report

-- The Hill: Senators struggle to get spending bills off ground as shutdown looms

-- The Hill: Opinion: America's foreign policy needs more than a replacement for John Bolton

-- Associated Press: North Korea says talks with US could resume in a 'few weeks'

-- The Washington Post: Iran's strategic use of drones and missiles rattles Middle East rivals

Outbrain