Saudi Arabia said armed drones struck two oil pumping stations on Tuesday, days after oil tankers near the United Arab Emirates were sabotaged and the US military is braced for “possibly imminent threats to US forces in Iraq” from Iran-backed forces.
The attacks took place against a backdrop of US-Iranian tension following Washington’s decision to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero and beef up its military presence in the Gulf in response to what it said were Iranian threats.
Tuesday’s attacks on the stations west of Riyadh and Sunday’s on four tankers off Fujairah emirate raise concerns the United States and Iran might inching to military conflict.
US President Donald Trump denied a New York Times report that US officials were discussing a military plan to send up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East to counter any attack or nuclear weapons acceleration by Iran.
“It’s fake news, OK? Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops,” Trump told reporters.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said there would not be war with the United States despite mounting tensions over Iranian nuclear capabilities, its missile programme and its support for proxies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
“There won’t be any war. The Iranian nation has chosen the path of resistance,” he said in comments carried by Iran’s state TV. He repeated Tehran would not negotiate with Washington over Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with major powers.
The US military cited possible imminent threats to troops in Iraq and said they were now on high alert. The US was responding to comments from a British deputy commander of the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State remnants in Iraq and Syria who said there was no increase in the threat from Iran-backed militia.
The comments “run counter to identified credible threats available to intelligence from US and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region,” said Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman at the US military’s Central Command.
Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal a year ago and increased economic sanctions on Iran.
Under the accord negotiated by Trump predecessor Barack Obama, Iran agreed to curb its uranium enrichment capacity, a potential pathway to a nuclear bomb, in return for sanctions relief.
NO HARD EVIDENCE
The Trump administration’s sanctions are designed to choke Iran’s oil exports to force the country to accept stringent limits on its nuclear and missile programmes as well as rein in support for proxy forces in the region.
US national security agencies believe proxies sympathetic to or working for Iran may have sabotaged tankers near the UAE rather than Iranian forces themselves, a US official familiar with the latest US assessments said.
The official said possible perpetrators might include Houthi rebels in Yemen and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq, but Washington had no hard evidence. On Monday, a US official said Iran was a leading candidate for the tanker sabotage but the United States did not have conclusive proof.
Iran rejects allegations of Iranian involvement and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said “extremist individuals” in the US government were pursuing dangerous policies.
A senior European diplomat voiced scepticism that Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy would force Iran to capitulate.
“Iran is not falling to its knees,” said the diplomat on condition of anonymity, adding Iran could resume its nuclear work and leave Washington with no option but military action.
“Does Trump want to go to war with Iran especially during an election campaign year?” he asked.
Democratic Party candidates are campaigning ahead of the November 2020 US election aiming to stop Republican Trump being re-elected.
HOUTHI TV CLAIMS DRONE ATTACK
Houthi-run Masirah TV earlier said the group carried out drone attacks on “vital” Saudi installations in response to “continued aggression and blockade” on Yemen.
A Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis for four years in Yemen to restore the internationally recognised government in a conflict widely seen as a Saudi-Iran proxy war.
The Houthis hit Saudi cities with drones and missiles with two Saudi sources telling Reuters this was the first time a facility of state-run Aramco was attacked by drones.
Aramco said it temporarily shut down the east-west pipeline, known as Petroline, to evaluate its condition. The pipeline transports crude from the kingdom’s eastern fields to the Yanbu port north of Bab al-Mandeb.
The energy minister of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, said the latest attacks caused a fire and minor damage at a pump station, but did not disrupt output or exports of crude and petroleum products.
Oil prices rose on news of the attack on the Saudi pumping stations. Brent futures gained $1.01, or 1.4%, to settle at $71.24 a barrel.
Saudi Arabia’s cabinet said the “terrorist attack” against two Saudi oil tankers near the UAE reflected poorly on regional and international security, Saudi Press agency reported.
It quoted the cabinet as saying it was the international community’s shared responsibility “to preserve maritime safety and oil tanker security in anticipation of any effects on energy markets and the danger of that on world economy.”
The UAE has not blamed anyone for what it called sabotage on the vessels. The UAE said other tankers hit were a UAE-flagged fuel bunker barge and a Norwegian-registered oil products tanker near Fujairah, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs just outside the Strait of Hormuz.
A fifth of global oil consumption passes through the strait from Middle East crude producers to most of the world.
A UAE official told Reuters the UAE was working with local and international partners from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Norway and France – which has a naval base in Abu Dhabi – to “fully investigate the incident and identify the people or entities responsible.”