Saudi Arabia said it would produce evidence on Wednesday linking regional rival Tehran to an unprecedented attack on its oil industry that Washington believes originated from Iran in a dangerous escalation of Middle East frictions.
But Tehran again denied involvement in the Sept. 14 attacks on oil plants, including the world’s biggest crude processing facility, that initially knocked out half of Saudi production.
“They want to impose maximum … pressure on Iran through slander,” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said according to state media. “We don’t want conflict in the region … Who started the conflict?” he said, blaming Washington and its Gulf allies for war in Yemen.
Yemen’s Houthi movement, an ally of Iran battling a Western-backed, Saudi-led coalition for more than four years, has claimed responsibility and said it used drones to assault state oil company Aramco’s sites.
However, the Saudi Defense Ministry said it will hold a news conference on Wednesday at 1430 GMT to present “material evidence and Iranian weapons proving the Iranian regime’s involvement in the terrorist attack”.
Concrete evidence showing Iranian responsibility, if made public, could pressure Riyadh and Washington into a response, though both nations have stressed the need for caution.
U.S. President Donald Trump has said he does not want war, there is “no rush” to retaliate, and coordination is taking place with Gulf and European states.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said on Wednesday, in a call with South Korea’s leader, that the attack was a “real test of the global will” to confront subversion of international stability, state media reported.
His envoy to London, Prince Khalid bin Bander, told the BBC the attack was “almost certainly” Iranian-backed but: “We’re trying not to react too quickly because the last thing we need is more conflict in the region.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and United Nations officials monitoring sanctions on Iran and Yemen were heading to Saudi Arabia for talks and investigations.
A U.S. official told Reuters the strikes originated in southwestern Iran. Three officials said they involved cruise missiles and drones, indicating a higher degree of complexity and sophistication than initially thought.
The officials did not provide evidence or explain what U.S. intelligence they were using for evaluating the attack that cut 5% of global production. Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, said on Tuesday the 5.7 million barrels per day of output lost would be fully restored by the end of the month.
Oil prices fell after the Saudi reassurances, having surged more than 20% at one point on Monday – the biggest intra-day jump since the 1990-91 Gulf War. [O/R]
A senior U.S. official called for a U.N. Security Council response to the attacks, although success is unlikely because diplomats say Russia and China – who have veto powers – are likely to shield Iran.
One of the three U.S. officials voiced confidence the Saudi probe would yield “compelling forensic evidence” determining the origins of the attack that has exposed serious gaps in Saudi air defenses despite billions of dollars spent on Western military hardware.
“The attack is like Sept. 11th for Saudi Arabia, it is a game changer,” said one Saudi security analyst.
Already frayed U.S.-Iran ties deteriorated further when Trump quit a nuclear pact between Tehran and the West last year and reimposed sanctions, severely hurting the Iranian economy.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ruled out talks with Washington unless it returns to the pact.
Trump said he is not looking to meet Rouhani during a U.N. event in New York this month. Rouhani and his foreign minister may not attend the General Assembly at all if U.S. visas are not issued in coming hours, state media reported Wednesday.
Washington and its Gulf allies want Iran to stop supporting regional proxies, including in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.
Despite years of air strikes against them, the Houthi movement boasts drones and missiles able to reach deep into Saudi Arabia, the result of an arms race since the Western-backed coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015.
Iran’s clerical rulers support the Houthis, who ousted Yemen’s internationally recognized government from power in the capital Sanaa in late 2014. But Tehran denies it actively supports them with military and financial support.
Illustrating global caution over such an inflammatory issue, Japan’s new defense chief said Tokyo has not seen any intelligence that shows Iran was involved in the attack.
(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Stephen Kalin in Jeddah; Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London, Michelle Nichols in New York, Rania El Gamal in Riyadh, Phil Stewart and Steve Holland in Washington, Alaa Swilam and Hisham El Saba in Cairo, Tim Kelly in Tokyo, John Irish in Paris, Asma Alsharif in Dubai; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)