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U.S.-Iran Tensions Rise Over Saudi Attacks


The U.S. and Saudi Arabia say evidence points to Iran after an attack this weekend on Saudi oil facilities. Iran denies involvement, although it says it's ready for, quote, "full-fledged war." When asked about that prospect earlier today, President Trump said this.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Do I want war? I don't want war with anybody. I'm somebody that would like not to have war.

CORNISH: Though he quickly added the U.S. does have the strongest military in the world.


There is another player in all of this, Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are backed by Iran. They claim responsibility for the attack. To make sense of the accusations and conflicting claims, we called up Heather Williams, a former U.S. intelligence analyst.

HEATHER WILLIAMS: It's unclear whether it was Iran who attacked Saudi Arabia, as opposed to Iran who allowed the Houthis or enabled the Houthis to conduct this attack against Saudi Arabia. I do think that there is important distinctions there in terms of the level of culpability that we assign to Iran. But I do think that the economic pressure that Iran has been under because of the United States' actions is relevant and is connected to these actions.

SHAPIRO: Why does it matter, ultimately, whether Iran enabled the Houthis to conduct this attack using Iranian weapons or it was Iranians who pulled the trigger themselves? Ultimately, what's the difference?

WILLIAMS: I think there is still important distinctions about what constitutes an attack on another country. You know, how we're going to respond to these actions can be relevant depending on how culpable they are. I mean, the United States sells weapons to a variety of countries, and we don't always know what they do with those and are not, I think, responsible for their actions taken with those.

Now, this is something different. The Iranians are actively giving material to the Houthis and likely provided, possibly, some technical assistance or other direct support in this kind of an operation. We still don't really know what happened, and there hasn't been a lot of information.

SHAPIRO: President Trump tweeted that the U.S. is locked and loaded. Does it make sense to you that an attack on Saudi Arabia could potentially spark a war between the U.S. and Iran?

WILLIAMS: I think right now, the United States still has a lot of decisions that it can make. Nothing forces our hand. So the president could choose to respond in certain ways, but I don't think that these actions necessitate or demand that the United States be directly drawn into the conflict.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. is asserting that Iran was responsible for this attack, whether or not it actually was. And so given that the U.S. has cut off diplomatic ties with Iran, what options does Washington have in responding to this?

WILLIAMS: That has severely limited our options. I think that the current administration has chosen a strategy of pressure, and I think that they will continue to do that. There are other options available to them. That doesn't mean that they're going to take advantage of them or explore them. So how that pressure could manifest - it could be additional intelligence support to parties in the region that we work with. It could be increased U.S. naval presence in the region, where we could try to be more actively involved in protecting the freedom of navigation and in patrolling the skies. Those, I think, are the types of things that this administration is more likely to do.

SHAPIRO: The administration has had such a constant turnover of national security staff. I mean, the national security adviser John Bolton left the White House last week. There's no Senate-confirmed director of national intelligence. Do you think all that makes a difference in a situation like this?

WILLIAMS: I think it does. I think that, in general, acting figures are less inclined to be assertive in what they do. I think that's more relevant in terms of long-term strategic planning and how we understand these problems. But I do think it's a little unclear what the U.S. intent and leadership is on these issues right now.

And where I think we see a lot of impact there is it makes it difficult to anticipate what's going to happen in the region because the parties in the region - the Iranians and the Houthis, even the Saudis - they have those ambiguities as well of not actually knowing what it is that the United States might do. And so therefore, they can make mistakes in this kind of game of brinkmanship that we see because they don't know what the U.S. is going to do.

SHAPIRO: That's Iran expert Heather Williams now at the RAND Corporation.

Thanks for speaking with us.

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