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A Cautious Pentagon Presents Iran Military Options to Trump – Foreign Policy

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The U.S. Defense Department planned to present military options to President Donald Trump on Friday amid growing international pressure and dissent among members of his national security team over how to respond to the weekend attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure that officials say were orchestrated by Iran. 

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, planned to brief the president in a Friday meeting, said U.S. officials who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. While a wide range of options will be briefed, defense officials are urging covert action—most likely a cyberattack or electronic warfare measures—coupled with diplomatic engagement next week at the United Nations General Assembly, according to a senior administration official.

While no decision has yet been made, State Department and Pentagon officials are at odds over how to respond to the attacks. While the State Department is pushing for a “substantial increase in forces,” the Pentagon is urging a less “escalatory” path, the official said. The measures under consideration include a direct strike on Iran and sending additional U.S. troops and equipment to the Middle East to shore up U.S. and allied defenses, U.S. officials said.

The White House declined to comment on the deliberations. 

Although Trump initially declared the U.S. military was “locked and loaded” to hit back against Tehran, the administration has faced criticism for its muted response to the strikes. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham on Friday called out the Pentagon directly for pushing a “weak response.”

“To Pentagon planners: a weak response over this outrageous Iranian aggression only invites more aggression,” Graham tweeted. “Be Strong Now or pay a Bigger Price Later.” 

Trump on Friday announced “the highest level of sanctions” on Iran’s national bank, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin elaborating that “we’ve now cut off all sources of funds to Iran.” But experts say additional sanctions are a weak response to the alleged attacks. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week to shore up support for an international coalition. 

Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman stressed Thursday that the administration is still waiting for the Saudi government to complete its assessment of the strikes—a “sophisticated” attack that involved both cruise missiles and drones—and to determine its origin. But he acknowledged that at this time all indications point to Iran being “in some way responsible.”  

Experts said a covert response could would likely involve cyberattacks, like the June attack conducted in response to Iran’s downing of a U.S. military drone, or electronic measures. These kinds of actions can be extremely effective—the June cyberattack, for example, reportedly wiped out a critical database used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to plot attacks against oil tanker.

The U.S. government could conduct cyberattacks against economic targets—such as key industries, businesses, or financial centers— as a continuation of the maximum pressure campaign, or against military targets to take certain Iranian capabilities offline, said Becca Wasser, an analyst with the Rand Corp. 

“A covert response is tempting because it mirrors the plausible deniability Iran used in the strike on Abqaiq and Khurais,” said Jeffrey Martini, also with the Rand Corp. 

In terms of military targets, these could include Iranian missile batteries or basing infrastructure, Martini said. 

“That would signal the United States is responding in kind to Iranian aggression while simultaneously signaling that the response is not intended to further escalate,” Martini said. 

Another plan under discussion is sending a combination of additional missile defense systems, such as Patriot battery and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, which can intercept ballistic missiles; another squadron of fighter jets; and added surveillance capabilities to the Middle East, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. 

A congressional aide familiar with the discussions said the president does not want a substantial increase in force posture, but the military may send marginal reinforcements as a show of support to Riyadh. 

“They want signs of U.S. commitment to their security,” the aide said, adding, “More U.S. troops will create more caution on behalf of Iran because they know if these attacks result in U.S. casualties it will necessitate a very strong response from the United States.”

Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for Dunford, declined to answer questions on whether U.S. Central Command has requested additional forces. 

The failure of the Saudi military to detect and prevent the attacks has also raised questions about the United States continuing to provide billions of dollars in advanced equipment to Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has six Patriot antimissile batteries, but they are reportedly deployed near important military installations, not oil infrastructure. In recent years Washington has also provided Riyadh advanced fighters and precision-guided munitions, which are being used in the devastating war in Yemen. 

Dana Stroul, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it is prudent for U.S. officials to take their time reviewing military options and discussing with Gulf partners the best path forward. 

“The U.S. and Saudi should be working together to make the case airtight” if indeed they determine the strikes came from Iran itself, Stroul said.  

She also cautioned that increasing forces in the Middle East could be an escalatory move that would increase the risk to thousands of U.S. military and diplomatic personnel stationed there. 

Staff writer Elias Groll contributed reporting. 

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