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Ahead Of Saudi Strike, Officials Say Satellites Show Iran Readying Weapons


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi officials today. They will discuss a response to attacks on Saudi oil facilities that happened over the weekend. Meanwhile, NPR is learning that U.S. military officials believe Iran set up drones and missiles at launch sites ahead of the attack on those facilities in Saudi Arabia. This is coming from satellite images that haven't been released publicly. But two Defense Department officials tell NPR's Tom Bowman that intelligence agencies see the activity as circumstantial evidence that Iran launched that strike from its own soil. The attack knocked out more than half of Saudi Arabia's oil exporting capability. Iran continues to deny any involvement in this. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us this morning. Tom, explain exactly what these satellite images show.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, I'm told they show preparations inside Iran readying launch sites for both drones and ballistic missiles. Again, this was before the attack on the Saudi oil facility. And, again, the U.S. considers this circumstantial evidence, and the intelligence community is still gathering information. Now, there's a Pentagon forensic team in Saudi Arabia looking at the remnants of these missiles to determine whether they're Iranian. And also I'm told the intelligence community is trying to determine if they can detect a flight path for the missile attack, which, of course, would be a key piece of information.

MARTIN: So understanding that they're still evaluating these images and collecting information, but what is the Pentagon advising at this point?

BOWMAN: Well, it's interesting. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joe Dunford, is in London for meetings, and he's focusing on how can the U.S. help Saudi protect itself, any defensive measures that the U.S. can offer to Saudi Arabia. He didn't mention anything, but it could be more Patriot missile batteries, radars so they can detect any incoming missiles. At this point, he and others are not talking about any sort of retaliation against Iran, again, because they're still collecting information to determine whether Iran actually did this attack.

MARTIN: Will they disclose whether or not they have concerns about a possible military conflagration between the U.S. and Iran?

BOWMAN: You mean the Pentagon?


BOWMAN: Oh, yeah, they're definitely concerned about it because it could escalate. There is that worry. And also you have 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. There are Iranian militias around there that could attack them. And U.S. ships in the Gulf could be attacked by Iranian boats. So they're very concerned about that. The military would prefer to see diplomacy here rather than an attack. I think they would agree with Churchill. It's better to jaw jaw than war war.

MARTIN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom. We're going to turn now to Trita Parsi. He is an author of several books about the U.S. relationship with Iran, the most recent one titled "Losing An Enemy." He's also the vice president of the Quincy Institute here in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for coming in, Trita.

TRITA PARSI: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So as we just heard there from Tom Bowman, U.S. military officials, the U.S. administration, getting closer to explicitly condemning Iran for this. What are the implications of that?

PARSI: Well, if conclusive evidence is shown that these attacks actually originate from Iranian territory, which would be quite different from whether this was an attack by the Houthis, then that is a pretty significant escalation. And it means that the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is very much taking place in the context of the Trump administration's economic warfare against Iran with the sanctions, which has been pushing out Iranian oil, has now escalated to a new level. It does not, however, mean that the U.S. is in any way, shape or form obligated to get involved in that war because the United States does not have a defense pact with Saudi Arabia, nor can it do so without congressional authority.

MARTIN: So I want to follow up on a couple of things there. You mentioned the Houthis. So the Houthis are a rebel group fighting in Yemen. So this gets confusing - right? - because Saudi Arabia and Iran have been fighting through proxies in Yemen. The U.S. has backed Saudi Arabia in that war. You're saying that there is a school of thought out there that this attack could have been waged by Houthis, which would provide some distance when it comes to assigning culpability for this when it comes to Iran.

PARSI: Yeah. At the end of the day, the Saudis have been bombing Yemen for five years. And just two weeks ago, they bombed a prison that killed more than 100 people. It is quite likely that this could be a retaliation for that because the Houthis have been retaliating against Saudi attacks but not as efficiently as the Saudis have been able to bomb Yemen. But if conclusive evidence - and I want to emphasize conclusive evidence because the idea that there's been some drones flying around in Iran is in no way, shape or form evidence that they were behind this. The Iranians are flying drones all the time, as is the United States. But if actual evidence is presented that the Iranians - that these attacks actually originated from Iran, then that's a different story than if this was coming from the Houthis in Yemen.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the U.S. obligation, if any. So understanding that conclusive evidence would need to be shown, if it were true that Iran had launched this attack from its own soil against Saudi Arabia, first off, is that - does that meet the definition of an act of war from Saudi's perspective?

PARSI: From Saudi's perspective, I think, yes, absolutely, it would. And then the Saudis should then take it to the U.N. and there should be discussion at the U.N. Security Council that the accusation is that the Iranians have violated the peace stability in the region. That's the route to take.

MARTIN: Even though the United States and Saudi Arabia are allies, do share strong diplomatic ties, economic ties clearly, there is no obligation on behalf of an American government to come to Saudi's defense here?

PARSI: There's absolutely no obligation on the U.S. side. And if any U.S. politicians would like to make the argument that the U.S. needs to get involved - I've seen several members of Congress, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, have made that claim - well, then they have to convince the American people why their children should be sent to die for the Saudi royal family. And they need to make a vote in Congress authorizing that war and go on the record casting those votes instead of just urging the president to do so outside of the Constitution.

MARTIN: What is the Trump administration's best next step?

PARSI: Well, Trump himself seems to recognize one very critical thing, which is that his own economic warfare against Iran, walking out of the nuclear deal, has led to this point. He was told, I believe, that this would lead to Iran's capitulation. Instead, we're seeing far greater tensions in the region as a result of that measure. He does not want to see a war, it appears, because he recognizes that as oil prices go up, it risks pushing the United States into a recession, which would be devastating for his reelection campaign. So I think he wants to de-escalate. The question is, can he de-escalate mindful of the fact that he's burned so many of the bridges for diplomacy that existed before?

MARTIN: Trita Parsi, vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft here in Washington, D.C., thank you for your time.

PARSI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.