Iran on Sunday rejected U.S. accusations it was responsible for the devastating attacks on two oil installations in Saudi Arabia that forced the state oil company to suspend its production output by half and sparked fears of escalating hostilities across the Persian Gulf.
The Houthis, a rebel group in Yemen allied with Iran, had claimed responsibility for the attacks Saturday, saying it had sent a fleet of drones toward the Aramco facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia. Within hours later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran directly for what he called “an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.”
There was “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen,” Pompeo said in a tweet. His comments, along with a U.S. government damage assessment of one of the stricken oil facilities that suggested the attack might not have come from Yemen, fed speculation that the strikes had been launched from Iran, or by Tehran’s allies in neighboring Iraq.
Saudi Arabia, which said on Saturday it was still probing the source of the attack, remained silent on Sunday about the possible culprit. Media outlets in Kuwait, which sits between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, reported Sunday that officials were investigating a drone sighting over the country, deepening the mystery.
The possibility that Iran had played a direct role in an attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure unnerved a region already reeling from multiple conflicts: a war in Yemen, a feud between Qatar and its neighbors and a confrontation between the United States and Iran.
The Trump administration has made isolating Iran a centerpiece of its foreign policy. The administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran struck with world powers and imposed economic sanctions and an embargo on oil exports.
The United States blamed Iran for a spate of mysterious attacks on commercial tankers in the Persian Gulf region; In June, Iranian forces shot down a U.S. Navy spy drone. The incident nearly prompted a U.S. counterstrike – an operation President Donald Trump said he called off at the last minute.
A senior Kuwaiti diplomat said his government was “extremely concerned” about the region’s stability in the wake of the attack. The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, did not say whether Kuwait believed Iran was directly involved.
The attack on Aramco “aimed to disrupt oil markets worldwide and to undermine regional stability,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous period in the gulf region.”
Officials in Iran and Iraq pushed back forcefully against allegations the attacks had come from their territories.
“Having failed at ‘max pressure,'” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted, Pompeo was now “turning to ‘max deceit.'”
Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, denied the strikes had been launched from his country. He said his government would “deal firmly” with anyone trying to attack neighboring countries from Iraq.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Albukhaiti reiterated the group’s claim that it had carried out the strikes. “We confirm that the Yemeni forces are the ones who hit the oil fields, and everyone knows our credibility, in every attack we announce,” he said in a telephone interview.
“We don’t need to provide evidence,” he added, and pointed out that Pompeo had not provided any proof that strikes had come from Iran or Iraq.
Israeli officials said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not expected to comment on the Saudi strikes or Pompeo’s assertion of Iran’s role. But many within Israel’s security community were ready to see Teheran’s fingerprints on the sophisticated attack.
“They are trying to prove what they have said in the past,” said Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence. “That if they are not going to export oil, no one will export oil.”
Netanyahu, who is days away from a too-close-to-call election, has based his campaign largely on warnings of Iran’s destabilizing machinations in the region. Israel is widely assumed to have been behind recent strikes on Iranian-backed militia targets in Iraq and Lebanon, and Netanyahu this month displayed intelligence images of what he said were previously undisclosed Iranian nuclear weapons facilities.
Aramco said Saturday that the attack by “projectiles” had forced it to suspend production of 5.7 million barrels of crude per day. That’s more than half of the kingdom’s output and about 6 percent of the global oil supply – a shortfall expected to send oil prices sharply higher.
Aramco did not say how long the production would be curtailed. In Washington, the U.S. Department of Energy said that the United States was prepared to tap emergency oil reserves if necessary to cover supply disruptions.
The blasts Saturday struck facilities in the districts of Khurais and Abqaiq, more than 500 miles from Houthi-controlled territory, Saudi officials said.
Houthi missiles have struck Saudi sites before, including oil infrastructure. But the attacks Saturday were a symbolic blow against the historical hub of the kingdom’s oil riches, and the centerpiece of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to remake the kingdom’s economy.
The company is preparing an initial public offering intended to raise billions for an economic reform program championed by the crown prince to move the country away from its dependence on oil revenue.
The attacks are expected to drive up global oil prices when trading resumes Monday and Saudi experts assess the damage. Benchmark Brent crude was just above $60 a barrel on Friday.
In a phone call with the crown prince on Saturday, Trump “expressed his country’s readiness to cooperate with the kingdom in supporting its security and stability, stressing the negative impact of the recent terrorist attacks against Aramco facilities on the American economy, as well as the global economy,” according to a Saudi readout of the call.
The crown prince told Trump that Saudi Arabia is “willing and able to confront and deal with this terrorist aggression,” according to the readout.
The U.S. government believes 15 structures at Abqaiq were damaged on the west-northwest-facing sides – not the southern facades, as would be expected if the attack came from Yemen.
Khurais, one of Saudi Arabia’s largest oil fields, is believed to produce about 1.5 million barrels per day. Abqaiq is the site of the kingdom’s largest oil processing facility, operated by Aramco. It might be the world’s most important piece of oil infrastructure, built to process about 7 million barrels a day of oil so that it can be shipped out of the Persian Gulf to foreign markets.
Saudi Arabia produced 9.85 million barrels of oil a day in August, or about 10 percent of the global supply.
Videos posted online showed gigantic fires sending up huge plumes of smoke. Large explosions and the sounds of gunfire could be heard in some of the videos.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Kareem Fahim, Erin Cunningham, Steven Mufson ·