Saudi Arabia raced on Sunday to restart operations at oil plants hit by drone attacks which slashed its production by half, as Iran dismissed US claims it was behind the assault.
The Tehran-backed Huthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is bogged down in a five-year war, have claimed Saturday’s strikes on two plants owned by state giant Aramco.
But United States secretary of state Mike Pompeo pointed the finger squarely at Tehran, saying there was no evidence the ‘unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply’ was launched from Yemen.
‘The United States will work with our partners and allies to ensure that energy markets remain well supplied and Iran is held accountable for its aggression,’ the top US diplomat added.
That drew an angry response from Tehran, where a foreign ministry spokesman said, ‘Such fruitless and blind accusations and remarks are incomprehensible and meaningless.’
The remarks were designed to damage Iran’s reputation and provide a pretext for ‘future actions’ against the Islamic republic, he added.
Baghdad, caught between its two main sponsors - Tehran and Washington - also denied any link to the attacks amid media speculation that the drones were launched from Iraq.
Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose nation is pitted against Iran in a decades-old struggle for regional dominance, has said the kingdom is ‘willing and able’ to respond to this ‘terrorist aggression’.
But a tit-for-tat strike on Iranian oil fields is ‘highly unlikely’, Middle East expert James Dorsey said.
‘The Saudis do not want an open conflict with Iran. The Saudis would like others to fight that war, and the others are reluctant,’ said Dorsey, from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Following a phone call between US president Donald Trump and Prince Mohammed, the White House condemned the attacks on ‘infrastructure vital to the global economy’.
Tehran and Washington have been at loggerheads since May last year, when Trump pulled the US out of a landmark 2015 deal that promised Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.
Washington’s response throws into doubt reported efforts by Trump to arrange a meeting with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming United Nations assembly.
The UN’s Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths said he was ‘extremely concerned’ over the latest attacks, which also drew swift condemnation from Riyadh’s Gulf allies, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait.
Saudi Arabia has spent billions on military hardware but recent events have underscored its infrastructure’s vulnerability to attack.
While the kingdom’s oil wells, scattered over a vast area, may be tough to hit, its various oil processing facilities are much more exposed.
In recent months, the Huthis have staged repeated cross-border missile and drone attacks targeting Saudi air bases and other facilities in what they say is retaliation for the Riyadh-led bombing campaign on rebel-held areas in Yemen.
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