The United States is reportedly removing Patriot anti-missile systems, along with other military assets, from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as it winds down a military build-up that began when tensions with Iran flared up last year.
The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous US officials, reported on Thursday that four batteries of Patriot surface-to-air missiles, meant to protect ground assets from missile and aircraft attacks, will be removed from Saudi oil facilities. Dozens of military personnel deployed along with the batteries will also be reassigned, officials told the WSJ.
The redeployment of the Patriot systems, which now is under way, has not been previously disclosed.
Two squadrons of US fighter jets have already left the region, and US officials are said to be considering a reduction in the US Navy presence in the Gulf. The reductions are said to be based on assessments by some officials that Tehran no longer poses an immediate threat to US strategic interests.
Saudi officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Reuters news agency. Iran has denied taking part in the attack on Saudi oil facilities.
US officials said they believe that a January strike that killed Iranian commander General Qassem Soleimani, along with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has hobbled Iran, have reduced Tehran's capabilities in the region. Pentagon planners are considering shifting the limited assets to deal with other priorities, including efforts to counter expanding Chinese military influence in Asia.
The traditionally warm relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia has been strained in recent weeks, as the price of oil crashed because of a Saudi oil price war with Russia and cratering demand due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many US oil firms are facing bankruptcy, and US politicians from President Donald Trump on down are under pressure to help curtail imports from the kingdom.
According to a report from Reuters last week, Trump told Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in early April that unless the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries started cutting oil production, he would be powerless to stop lawmakers from passing legislation to withdraw US troops from the kingdom.
Oil prices surged 11 percent on Thursday after Saudi Arabia announced that it would raise prices to boost the commodity's recovery. The increased prices are a reversal from earlier in the year, when Saudi Arabia was selling crude at huge discounts, initiating the price war.
A portion of the military hardware now being removed from Saudi Arabia was deployed last September following a series of attacks on Saudi oil facilities. At a news conference at the time announcing the move, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the move was needed to protect critical Saudi oil infrastructure, and called on other nations to condemn the attacks.
"The Iranian regime is waging a deliberate campaign to destabilize the Middle East and impose costs on the international economy," Esper said.