President Donald Trump has approved the deployment of air and missile defense systems to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of last weekend’s attack on Saudi oil facilities that the U.S. has blamed on Iran, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced at a hastily called Pentagon press conference on Friday night.
The exact number of weapons systems and troops remains to be determined, said Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who added it would not be “thousands.”
Trump’s decision to deploy troops followed a high-level national security meeting held at the White House on Friday afternoon.
Esper said Saudi Arabia had requested the international support to protect critical infrastructure.
(MORE: Trump announces sanctions on Iran’s national bank ahead of military options meeting)
He called last weekend’s attack a “dramatic escalation of Iranian aggression” and said all indications are that Iran was responsible for the attack.
“The United States does not seek conflict with Iran,” said Esper, who added that the U.S. has military options should they become necessary.
Dunford said the deployment would enhance Saudi Arabia’s air missile defense systems.
Sgt. Zachary Mott/U.S. Army
Soldiers from Battery C, 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment work together to prepare a Patriot missile launcher for reloading, March 7, 2019.
The U.S. currently has a Patriot missile defense battalion with about 600 troops at Prince Sultan air base outside of Riyadh that was deployed in late May after a series of commercial tankers were attacked by Iran in the Persian Gulf.
With a 100-mile range, that air defense system was not capable of defending the attack on the facilities approximately 200 miles away that briefly disrupted 5% of the world’s oil supply. Saudi Patriot air defense systems are deployed to the southern part of the country to defend against ballistic missile attacks by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, not oriented toward Iranian provocations from the north.
Earlier on Friday, Trump announced sanctions on Iran’s national bank he described as “the highest sanctions ever imposed on a country.”
“This will mean no more funds going to the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] to fund terror. This is on top of our oil sanctions and our financial institution sanctions,” said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. “This is very big. We’ve now cut off all source of funds to Iran.”
On Friday afternoon, the president convened a meeting of his senior advisers to consider options to retaliate against Iran for the strike. Those options reportedly included everything from the deployment of more U.S. forces to help defend the Saudis, no additional forces, a limited proportional airstrike, no military action or striking a broader range of targets.
In earlier national security meetings, officials had decided to let the Saudis take the lead.
The U.S. is “always prepared” to use a military option against Iran, the president said in the Oval Office on Friday ahead of the meeting.