Pompeo in Saudi Arabia on Iran

On February 19, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Riyadh for three days of meetings with Saudi officials, including King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. During a meeting with King Salman, Pompeo discussed “bilateral issues, including countering the malign influence of the Iranian regime, as well as the need for cooperation on regional conflicts such as Syria and Yemen.” Pompeo assured Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that “the United States stands with Saudi Arabia in the face of these [Iranian] threats, as reflected in our greater military presence in Saudi Arabia,” according to a press release. Pompeo also met with deputy defense minister Prince Khalid bin Salman to discuss regional security issues. 


After the meetings at the royal palace, Pompeo visited the Prince Sultan Air Base, where nearly 2,500 U.S. service members have been stationed. “Pompeo's visit to Prince Sultan air base and a nearby U.S. Patriot battery highlights the long-standing U.S.-Saudi security relationship and reaffirms America's determination to stand with Saudi Arabia in the face of Iranian malign behavior," the State Department said in a statement. President Trump had ordered the deployment of 3,500 additional troops to the Middle East following the killing of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike on January 3.


The following are comments by Pompeo and the State Department from the trip.


Remarks to the press at Prince Sultan Air Base on February 20

SECRETARY POMPEO:  I hope you all had a good visit and got a chance to see when I talk about the economic pressure campaign and the diplomatic pressure campaign and our military deterrence, you got a chance to see a significant piece of that today, what we’re doing to keep the peace here in the region, how our partners – this is a facility where we work side by side and work on lots of important deterrence problem sets right alongside our partners from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we got a chance to see that up close and personal today.

The President’s mission set that you see in the National Security Strategy and you see that we’ve been working on with respect to the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran are real.  We’re not far from there where we’re sitting right now.  And you can see the good work that’s being done by our young men and women in uniform to keep the peace, keep the deterrence, work with our partner to deliver us to a place where I, as the Secretary of State, can get the diplomatic outcome that the President is seeking.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, how has the Soleimani strike played into the defensive calculation here and the conversations you’ve had?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Well, I think you had multiple impacts.  The first is I think it demonstrated resolve not only from the United States, but all of the forces that are working to push back against the Islamic Republic of Iran.  He was actively plotting to kill Americans.  He had killed Americans.  It was an important strategic strike that was taken.  And I think you can see that it’s now provided the Iranians with a deep knowledge that our notion of deterrence is real.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  I know we didn’t get to visit the oil site today, but can you tell us a little bit about whether the facilities are better protected now than they were in September and how those defenses have improved?  And are you confident that they’re able to withstand a precision strike of the sort that we saw in September?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  I don’t want to say much about the tactical pieces of this.  I’ll leave that to the Department of Defense to talk about those kinds of things.  But the force posture that’s here today – not only the American presence here today, but the work we’ve done alongside our Saudi partners to better prepare for strikes of that nature – is very real.  And so there is a heightened sense of security for facilities like that, and we’re more capable today than we were.  But I’ll leave the details of how that’s all been done to the Department of Defense.

QUESTION:  Just talking from the political side, could you talk a little about your conversations with the Saudis when you decided to send more troops here?  Kind of what was the main motivating factors, and looking forward, what their – what the main mission is?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Yeah.  You want to talk about the first piece, your conversations with the Saudis here on the ground and then I’ll talk about what happened at – between Washington and Riyadh and the capitals?  And then I’ll try and take that last one too.

AMBASSADOR ABIZAID:  Yeah.  Certainly, in the early days, where I first got here right in the May period, when we started having problems in the Arabian Gulf with ships being attacked and then in the Red Sea – also, of course, a lot of people don’t understand there’s been an awful lot of missile strikes that have been supplied by missiles, supplied by the IRGC Qods Force launched from Yemen, 400 strikes, as a matter of fact, on – about – on Saudi Arabia.  I mean, they were in a position of realizing that as the temperature was going up in their own region that they’re facing an opponent on the other side that is very, very large in terms of population and capability.

So they naturally turned to us for support, and our support has been defensive.  They’ve never asked for offensive support.  It’s always been defensive support.  And I think it was not only the right thing to do, but to add to what – the question that was previously asked, the defensive posture is much improved not only for the United States but for Saudi Arabia.  And so our ability to withstand something that might come from that direction is much improved, but it’s not perfect.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  You asked, too, for our strategic objective.  Remember we laid it out in May of ’18 that behavioral changes we’re seeking from the Islamic Republic of Iran have not changed.  They’re not going to get nuclear weapons.  We’re going to prevent that.  The previous administration had taken a very different approach.  They underwrote these very capabilities, right.  The very missile systems that are being launched today were funded by the plan that the previous administration had put in place, supplying hundreds of billions of dollars to the Islamic Republic of – to the regime.

And we’ve taken a radically different approach.  We are draining their capacity to conduct strategic activity in the region and destabilize the Middle East.  They’re having to make harder choices today.  It’ll take time.  There remains work to do.  But you can see they’ve gone from delivering 2.7 or 2.8 million barrels per day to a couple hundred thousand barrels a day.  We’re going to try and tighten that down even further to deny the regime the capacity to underwrite Hizballah, underwrite the Shia militias, underwrite Hamas and the PIJ in the Gaza Strip, all of the stuff that we’ve now got hundreds of thousands of refugees in Syria as a direct result of what the Iranian regime is doing.

We’re trying to deny them the resources to inflict this kind of harm throughout the Middle East.  Part of that has to be at the same time.  The Iranians will respond.  We’ve seen that.  And so you have to establish the deterrence that’s connected to that.  So while that – while you are demonstrating the resolve to convince the Iranian regime to behave differently, you have to maintain military deterrence as well.  And so we’re working across each of those.

I don’t have anything to say about Afghanistan, other than we’ve been following the election results very, very closely.  We want to make sure that we’ve got it exactly right, and we’ll make a statement on that before too terribly long.

QUESTION:  The U.S. just revealed further evidence that Iran was behind the missiles that were used by the Houthis to attack the oil facilities in Saudi.  Has this evidence helped you to further convince your partners to take action at the UN, and what are your next steps there?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Yeah.  No reasonable person has any doubt about where these missiles came from. They – I mean, let’s just be clear.  There’s never – this is not an intelligence problem or a dataset problem.  This is – this was – everyone’s known who this was from the get-go.  It was very clear.  The Iranian fingerprints are all over this thing.  Anybody who suggests otherwise is – has got another motive in denying that this was an Iranian attack launch.  This was an act of war in violation of all kinds of UN norms and rules.

And so, yeah, we’ll continue to – as we – there’s additional data, but I must say we’re at the margins now.  The decisive dataset that demonstrates that this was an Iranian attack has been clear from hours after the attack.

AMBASSADOR ABIZAID:  By the way, the missiles that are being used and fired from Yemen by the Houthis are all coming from the Iranians.  This is so clear.  We’ve just recently interdicted two dhows down there filled with Iranian-produced equipment that is being used by the Houthis to attack Saudi Arabia.  So I think it’s really important for us to understand who is the aggressor in the region, and it’s no doubt it’s the Iranians.

QUESTION:  Following up more on the military side – I know you were briefed.  It’s been outwardly, I guess, a bit quiet since the oilfield strike, but it does feel like that tension is still there.  What is that threat landscape look like?  Is there (inaudible) concern that this will continue?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Yeah, the fact that we’re here today, the fact that so many young American men and women are here and at other facilities, not only here in Saudi Arabia but in Iraq and in Al Udeid in Qatar and folks – part of the NAVCEN Fifth Fleet – I think demonstrates that the demand for deterrence remains.  You need look only at the ayatollah’s Twitter feed to know that these are people who have a deep disdain for the very fundamental ideas that we hold so dear in the United States and that their desire to wipe the state of Israel off the map and to do harm to the United States of America remains.  And our aim is to change that behavior from the regime, but it remains a great deal of work to do to deliver on that ultimate objective.

—Feb. 20, 2020, in remarks to the press at Prince Sultan Air Base


Remarks to the press before a flight to Riyadh on February 19

QUESTION:  As we were traveling, we saw still more attacks by Iran in Iraq.  I’m curious for the latest from your perspective.  And also, kind of curious if you can get at what the U.S. reaction might be.  Are we going to do something or just continue to let them attack? 

SECRETARY POMPEO: So we’re working with the Iraqi Government.  They have a responsibility to keep our embassy and our military facilities secure.  They’ve repeatedly not been able to achieve that.  We’re looking to not only apprehend those who conducted this attack, but demanding that they still do more work. 

I never broadcast what our response may be in advance, but we are mindful that it cannot become ordinary course that the Iranians through their proxy forces in Iraq are putting the lives of Americans at risk.  This can’t be ordinary.  This can’t be routine.  There, in the end, has to be accountability connected to those very serious attacks.  (Inaudible) there was a little bit of damage it sounds like, but no injuries or loss of life. 

I’ve been tracking it.  Our teams are tracking it.  Department of Defense is tracking it too. 

QUESTION:  Iran’s Supreme Leader over the weekend said that they will not come to the table unless the United States stops their pressure campaign.  Just wanted to get your response to his comments. 

SECRETARY POMPEO:  We’re prepared to talk at any time, but they’ve got to fundamentally change their behavior. That’s what we’ve asked for consistently for now three years of the Trump administration. 

We’ve laid down the outlines of what that would look like, the twelve points, the things they have to do, but they’re really common sense, right.  You can’t build out your nuclear program, you can’t foment terror around the world.  Even today, you were just talking about this attack in Iraq.  It creates extraterritorial kinetic activity – just unacceptable.  And then finally, they got to get the missile program back in a place where they’re permitted to defend themselves, but no more than that.  And the human rights violations, the fact that they’re still detaining Europeans and Americans unlawfully is unacceptable. 

When they’re prepared to come to the table and talk about those, so are we.  We’re standing by.  We’re not anxious.  We’re not rushed.  The pressure campaign continues.  It’s not just an economic pressure campaign, it’s diplomatic pressure, it’s isolation through diplomacy as well.  And you’ve seen the work that we’ve done to make sure that we have the resources in place to deter their attacks further. 

—Feb. 19, 2020, in remarks to the traveling press 


State Department Press Release on Meeting with King Salman

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo met yesterday with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  Secretary Pompeo and King Salman noted the strong and enduring 75-year partnership between Saudi Arabia and the United States.  The Secretary and the King discussed bilateral issues, including countering the malign influence of the Iranian regime, as well as the need for cooperation on regional conflicts such as Syria and Yemen.  The Secretary thanked the King for Saudi Arabia’s support for UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and efforts to end the conflict in Yemen.  Secretary Pompeo and King Salman agreed that a comprehensive political agreement is the only way to achieve peace, prosperity, and security in Yemen.  The Secretary and the King also discussed the need to resolve consular and human rights issues.


State Department Press Release on Meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo met yesterday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  Secretary Pompeo and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed the continuing threat posed by the Iranian regime.  The Secretary assured the Crown Prince that the United States stands with Saudi Arabia in the face of these threats, as reflected in our greater military presence in Saudi Arabia.  The Secretary and the Crown Prince discussed increased violence in Yemen and agreed on their support for UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ efforts to advance the political process there.  They also discussed the situations in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon; the need for a united Gulf Cooperation Council, and consular and human rights issues.


State Department Press Release on Meeting with Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman Al Saud

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo met with Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman Al Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia yesterday.  Secretary Pompeo and the Deputy Minister discussed the continued threat posed by the Iranian regime and the United States’ commitment to work with Saudi Arabia to face these threats.  On Yemen, the Secretary thanked the Deputy Minister for his continued efforts toward a political resolution to the conflict.  The Secretary underscored the need to implement the Riyadh Agreement to facilitate the continuation of the UN-led political process.  The Secretary and the Deputy Minister also discussed the situations in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon; the need for a united GCC; and consular and human rights issues.