US President Donald Trump said it looked like Iran was behind attacks on oil plants in Saudi Arabia but stressed he did not want to go to war, as oil prices soared and fears of a new Middle East conflict were raised.
Iran rejected US charges it was behind the Saturday strikes that damaged the world’s biggest crude-processing plant and triggered the largest jump in crude prices in decades.
Relations between the US and Iran deteriorated since Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord last year and re-imposed sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic programmes. Washington wants to pressure Tehran to end its support of regional proxy forces, including in Yemen where Saudi forces are fighting Iran-backed Houthis.
The US was investigating if Iran was behind the Saudi strikes, Trump said, but “it’s certainly looking that way at this moment”.
Trump, who spent much of his presidency trying to disentangle the US from inherited wars, made it clear 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, blamed Tehran for the strikes. Pompeo and others will travel to Saudi Arabia soon, Trump said.
A day after saying the US was “locked and loaded” to respond, Trump sai there was “no rush”.
“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.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the strikes 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 in Ankara.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi called the allegations “unacceptable and entirely baseless.”
The attacks cut five percent of world crude oil production.
Oil prices surged by up to 19% after the incidents, the biggest intraday jump since the 1990-91 Gulf crisis over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Prices retreated after Trump said he would release US emergency supplies and producers said there were enough stocks globally to make up for the shortfall.
Japan will consider co-ordinated release of its oil reserves and other measures if needed to ensure sufficient supplies.
Crude prices LCOc1 were down around one percent in Asian trade on Tuesday.
“The question is how long it takes for supply to get back online,” said Esty Dwek, head of global market strategy at Natixis Investment Managers.
“The geopolitical risk premium, 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 Mohammed 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 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,” the statement added.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been enemies for decades and are fighting a number of proxy wars.
Trump 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 suggested weeks.
Saudi Arabia said it would be able to meet oil customers’ demand from storage, although some deliveries were disrupted. At least 11 super tankers were waiting to load oil from Saudi ports, ship tracking data showed.
Tension in the Gulf region dramatically escalated this year after Trump imposed sanctions on Iran aimed at halting its oil exports.
For months, Iranian officials issued veiled threats, saying if Tehran is blocked from exporting oil, other countries will not be able to do so either. Iran denied a role in specific attacks, including bombing tankers in the Gulf and previous strikes claimed by the Houthis.
Trump said the goal of his “maximum pressure” approach is to force Iran to negotiate a tougher agreement and leaves open the possibility of talks with Rouhani at an upcoming UN meeting. Iran says there can be no talks until Washington lifts sanctions.
UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths told the Security Council it was “not entirely clear” who was behind the strike saying it increased chances of a regional conflict.
The US ambassador to the world body, Kelly Craft, said emerging information on the attacks “indicates responsibility lies with Iran” and there is no evidence it came from Yemen.
Iran’s Yemeni allies promised more strikes. Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said the group carried out Saturday’s predawn attack with drones, some powered by jet engines.
“We assure the Saudi regime 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 plants we struck because they are still in our sights.”
US officials believe the attacks came from the opposite direction, possibly Iran itself rather than Yemen and may have involved cruise missiles. They believe Iran is to blame.
The attacks 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.
President Vladimir Putin said Russia was ready to help Saudi Arabia providing Russian-made air defence systems to protect infrastructure.