US President Donald Trump said Monday it looked like Iran was behind attacks on oil plants in Saudi Arabia, but stressed, as the attacks sent oil prices soaring and raised fears of a new Middle East conflict, that he did not want to go to war.
Iran has rejected US charges it was behind the strikes Saturday that damaged the world’s biggest crude processing plant and triggered the largest jump in crude prices in decades.
Relations between the United States and Iran have deteriorated since Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord last year and re-imposed sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic programmes. Washington also wants to pressure Tehran to end its support for regional proxy forces, including in Yemen where Saudi forces have been fighting Iran-backed Houthis for four years.
The United States is still investigating if Iran was behind the Saudi strikes, Trump said, adding, “it’s certainly looking that way at this moment.”
Trump, who has spent much of his presidency trying to disentangle the United States from wars he inherited, made clear, however, he was not going to rush into a new conflict on behalf of Saudi Arabia. “I’m somebody that would like not to have war,” Trump said.
Several US cabinet members, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, have blamed Tehran for the strikes. Pompeo and others will travel to Saudi Arabia soon, Trump said.
A day after saying the United States was “locked and loaded” to respond to the incident, Trump said Monday there was “no rush” to do so. “We have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now. We want to find definitively who did this,” he said.
The sudden attack on Saudi oil facilities shifted the mood in Washington on a possible opening towards Iran, including responding positively to a French proposal to hold a summit meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when both leaders attend the UN General Assembly meeting next week.
Reports that such a summit meeting could take place were even on the rise late last week after Trump’s decision to fire his hawkish national security adviser John Bolton, who reportedly called for a tougher policy against Iran, whether through sanctions or even use of military force.
However, following the drone attacks against Saudi oil facilities Saturday, both Washington and Tehran now agree that any meeting between Trump and Rouhani is unlikely.
On Tuesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran will never hold one-on-one talks with the United States, but could engage in multilateral discussions if it returns to the 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear programme.
“Iranian officials, at any level, will never talk to American officials... this is part of their policy to put pressure on Iran... their policy of maximum pressure will fail,” Iranian state television quoted Khamenei as saying.
Khamenei said Iran’s clerical rulers were in agreement on this: “All officials in Iran unanimously believe it. If America changes its behaviour and returns to [the 2015] nuclear deal, then it can join multilateral talks between Iran and other parties to the deal,” Khamenei said.
“If we yield to their pressure and hold talks with Americans... This will show that their maximum pressure on Iran has succeeded. They should know that this policy has no value for us,” said Khamenei, who has the last say on all state matters.
Meanwhile, Iranian President Rouhani insisted the strikes in Saudi Arabia were carried out by “Yemeni people” retaliating for attacks by a Saudi-led military coalition in a war with the Houthi movement. “Yemeni people are exercising their legitimate right of defence,” Rouhani told reporters during a visit to Ankara.
The attacks cut five per cent of world crude oil production. Oil prices surged by as much as 19 per cent after the incidents, the biggest intraday jump since the 1990-91 Gulf crisis over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Prices retreated from their peak after Trump said he would release US emergency supplies and producers said there were enough stocks globally to make up for the shortfall.
Japan said it will consider a coordinated release of its oil reserves and other measures if needed to ensure sufficient supplies in the wake of the attacks. Crude prices were down around one per cent in Asian trade Tuesday.
“The question is how long it takes for the supply to get back online,” said Esty Dwek, head of global market strategy at Natixis Investment Managers.
“However, the [geopolitical] risk premium... which has been basically ignored by markets in favour of growth worries in recent months, is likely to be priced-in going forward,” she said.
Saudi Arabia said the attacks were carried out with Iranian weapons and urged UN experts to help investigate the raid. Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman said Iranian threats were not only directed against the kingdom but against the Middle East and the world.
While the prince did not directly accuse Tehran, a Saudi Foreign Ministry statement reported him as calling on the international community to condemn whoever was behind the strike. “The kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks,” the statement added.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been enemies for decades and are fighting a number of proxy wars in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Trump said he had not made commitments to protect the Saudis. “No, I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out,” he said. “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them.”
Two sources briefed on state oil company Saudi Aramco’s operations told Reuters it might take months for Saudi oil production to return to normal. Earlier estimates had suggested it could take weeks.
Saudi Arabia said it would be able to meet oil customers’ demand from its ample storage, although some deliveries had been disrupted. At least 11 super-tankers were waiting to load oil cargoes from Saudi ports, ship tracking data showed Monday.
Tension in the oil-producing Gulf region has dramatically escalated this year after Trump imposed severe US sanctions on Iran aimed at halting its oil exports altogether.
For months, Iranian officials have issued veiled threats, saying that if Tehran is blocked from exporting oil, other countries will not be able to do so either. But Iran has denied a role in specific attacks, including bombings of tankers in the Gulf and previous strikes claimed by the Houthis.
UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths told the UN Security Council Monday it was “not entirely clear” who was behind the strike but he said it had increased the chances of a regional conflict.
But the US ambassador to the world body, Kelly Craft, said emerging information on the attacks “indicates that responsibility lies with Iran” and there is no evidence it came from Yemen.
Iran’s Yemeni allies have promised more strikes to come. Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said the group carried out Saturday’s predawn attack with drones, including some powered by jet engines.
“We assure the Saudi regime that our long arm can reach any place we choose and at the time of our choosing,” Sarea tweeted. “We warn companies and foreigners against being near the plants that we struck because they are still in our sights.”
US officials say they believe the attacks came from the opposite direction, possibly from Iran itself rather than Yemen, and may have involved cruise missiles. Wherever the attacks were launched, however, they believe Iran is to blame.
The attacks have raised questions about how Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s top spenders on weaponry, much of it supplied by US companies, was unable to protect oil plants from attack.
Sensing a commercial opening, President Vladimir Putin said Russia was ready to help Saudi Arabia by providing Russian-made air defence systems to protect Saudi infrastructure. Russia and China said it was wrong to jump to conclusions about who was to blame for the attack on Saudi Arabia.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.