Saudi Arabia said it would unveil evidence on Wednesday linking regional foe Iran to attacks on key oil installations, as US President Donald Trump sought to intensify pressure on Tehran by announcing new sanctions.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was due to hold talks later Wednesday in Saudi Arabia, which has said the weapons used in the strikes were Iranian-made, but has so far not directly blamed its arch-rival.
However, the Saudi defence ministry said its spokesman would present evidence from the site of the weekend attacks that halved Saudi oil production, sending shock waves across global energy markets.
He “will announce the final results of the investigation and present material evidence and Iranian weapons proving the Iranian regime’s involvement in the terrorist attack,” the ministry said.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler, on Wednesday said the attack on the heart of the kingdom’s oil industry was a “real test” of global will, state media reported.
Ahead of Pompeo’s arrival in the kingdom, Trump — who has already re-imposed sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy — promised to “substantially increase” the measures.
In a swift response, Riyadh thanked the president for his “unprecedented” stance against Tehran, which Washington has accused of carrying out the strike.
“We will continue to stand with the USA against the forces of evil and senseless aggression,” deputy defence minister Prince Khalid bin Salman said on Twitter.
Pompeo is set to meet with Prince Mohammed to discuss a response to the strikes.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that the administration has concluded that the attack involved cruise missiles from Iran and that evidence would be presented at the UN General Assembly next week.
“As the president said, we don’t want war with anybody, but the United States is prepared,” Vice President Mike Pence said in a speech in Washington on Tuesday.
– Prefer not to meet –
The apparent hardening of the US position came as Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruled out negotiations with Washington “at any level”.
That appeared to nix remaining hopes for a dramatic meeting between President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations next week.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, Trump said he too had cooled on what had always seemed to be a diplomatic longshot.
“I never rule anything out, but I prefer not meeting him,” Trump said.
Yemen’s Huthi rebels claimed responsibility for Saturday’s oil installation attacks, which took out six percent of global supplies.
But a senior US administration official cast doubt on that claim, saying that while the insurgents said they had used 10 drones, one Saudi oil facility was hit “at least 17 times,” and another twice by “precision-guided munitions.”
Additionally, neither the type of drone “nor the cruise missiles employed in the attack can reach the facilities from Yemen. It’s not possible,” the official said.
Observers say the experience in Yemen, where despite their vast firepower, the Saudis have failed to subdue the ragtag but highly motivated militia, has made Riyadh circumspect about wading into another conflict.
“I certainly hope we’re not (going to have another war),” Riyadh’s ambassador to London Prince Khalid bin Bandar told the BBC in an interview.
“Almost certainly (the attack was) Iranian-backed, but we are trying not to react too quickly because the last thing we need is more conflict in the region,” he said.
Iran has stuck with its account that the Huthis were responsible, and Rouhani said Wednesday the rebels had done so as a “warning” about a possible wider war in response to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.
State media said Tehran had written to Washington through the Swiss embassy on Monday, denying any role in attacks on Saudi oil installations and warning it would respond to any action.
The message “emphasised that if any actions are taken against Iran, that action will face an immediate response from Iran and its scope will not be limited to just a threat,” the official IRNA news agency said.
– Support for war? –
The increasingly complex conflict dovetails with the Trump administration’s attempt to curb Iranian power through a “maximum pressure” campaign of crippling economic sanctions.
Trump began that campaign after unilaterally pulling out of a 2015 international deal meant to reward Iran for allowing restrictions on its nuclear programme.
Trump called off a retaliatory missile attack on Iran in June after the Iranians shot down a spy drone.
Trump’s administration is considering responses to the latest attack, including a cyber attack or a physical strike on Iranian oil infrastructure or its Revolutionary Guards, NBC News reported, citing unnamed US officials.
Oil prices have see-sawed since the attacks, with record gains Monday followed by a tumble Tuesday as the Saudi assurances on supply soothed the markets.