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The US blames Iran for the Saudi Arabia oil attacks, further escalating tensions

A strike on a critical Saudi Arabian oil facility is claimed by the Houthi rebels in Yemen. But the US says Tehran is behind it — once again putting the two countries at odds.

The entrance of an Aramco oil facility near al-Khurj area, on September 15, 2019.
Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

An attack on Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil facilities over the weekend is disrupting the world’s oil supply and igniting tensions in an already volatile region of the world.

On Saturday night, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for a “large-scale” assault with 10 drones on two facilities run by Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil company, in Abqaiq and Khurai in eastern Saudi Arabia.

The United States quickly moved to blame Iran for the strikes, though it did not offer much evidence to back up the claim. But the allegation alone ratcheted up fears of a direct military confrontation between Iran and the US, and quickly squashed any hopes of a possible detente in the United States’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran.

“Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter Saturday. “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”

President Donald Trump later warned that the US was “locked and loaded” and ready to retaliate against the culprit, though he did not specifically mention Iran. However, Trump added that the US was “waiting to hear from the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

Iran is aligned with the Houthi rebels in Yemen who are fighting against a Saudi-led coalition that has support from the US.

Trump administration officials told reporters this weekend that the attack, which may have involved both drones and cruise missiles, was too sophisticated for the rebels to carry out on their own, likely pointing to Iranian support.

The Trump administration also said the strikes came from the north or northwest — suggesting the attack originated not in Yemen, which is south of Saudi Arabia, but from Iran or Iraq, which both lie to the north.

Iraqi officials said Monday that the Trump administration had confirmed the attack didn’t originate in Iraq. US officials released some satellite photos of the damaged facilities as evidence of Iran’s involvement, though haven’t they haven’t been very clear on how they concluded the origins of the strike.

Iran has denied any involvement in the strike.

On Monday morning, Trump appeared to respond to this denial, recalling an incident back in June when Tehran shot down a US drone. Iran claimed the unmanned aircraft had been flying in Iranian air space, not over international waters as the US claimed. Trump claimed at the time that he had planned to retaliate with a military strike on Iran but pulled back at the last minute.

“Remember when Iran shot down a drone, saying knowingly that it was in their ‘airspace’ when, in fact, it was nowhere close,” Trump tweeted Monday. “They stuck strongly to that story knowing that it was a very big lie. Now they say they had nothing to do with the attack on Saudi Arabia. We’ll see?”

Later Monday, Trump told reporters at the White House that “it’s looking that way” when asked whether Iran was involved, adding that “as soon as we find out definitively, we’ll let you know.”

Saudi officials said Monday that Iranian weapons were used in the attacks and that the strikes didn’t come from Yemen — echoing the US position — but declined to provide any detailed evidence to back up their claims, either.

US allies, including Britain and Germany, have condemned the attack on the Saudi oil facilities, but stopped short of assigning blame. “At the moment we’re analyzing, along with our partners, who is responsible for this attack and how it could happen,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Monday.

All of this makes for a very tense and uncertain political situation — as well as a potentially serious disruption in the global oil supply.

Saudi Arabia’s facility in Abqaiq accounts for a significant portion of Saudi oil production, and Riyadh initially said the attack would initially force the Kingdom to cut output by 5.7 million barrels of crude oil per day. That comes out to about half of Saudi Arabia’s total oil output, and some 5 percent of the world’s oil supply.

Trump said he would tap into the US’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve if necessary to help ease supply.

The attacks come as a possible détente between the US and Iran was on the horizon

The strikes on the Saudi oil facilities has officially tangled up the ongoing conflict in Yemen with the ongoing US-Iran standoff.

The Houthis have attacked Saudi oil infrastructure, including pipelines, throughout the nearly five-year-long war. (The Saudi-led coalition also continues to wage a brutal bombing campaign inside Yemen, including a strike on a jail earlier this month that killed 60.)

But this latest assault on the Saudi oil facilities proves that the Houthis, or whoever carried out the strike, have the ability to hit Saudi Arabia where it really hurts, and hard.

That’s part of the reason the US is moving to blame Iran, as the Houthis haven’t yet carried out an attack of this magnitude — that crippled one of Saudi Arabia’s most important oil plants — or exactitude.

If Iran was involved, the timing of the attack is certainly notable. The US has waged a maximum pressure campaign of tough economic sanctions and political pressure against Iran since 2018, when Trump pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal.

That standoff escalated this summer as Iran decided to renege on its nuclear commitments under the deal and also began acting more aggressively in the Persian Gulf, including allegedly attacking oil tankers.

The US’s European allies have remained party to the nuclear deal, and have been desperately trying to salvage it for the better part of a year — though their efforts have largely been rebuffed by the Trump administration’s Iran hawks.

But last week, some things shifted in this dynamic.

For one, the most hawkish of Iran hawks, National Security Advisor John Bolton, left the Trump administration. Bolton had been staunchly opposed to any weakening of the maximum pressure campaign, and Trump and Bolton had reportedly argued about easing sanctions on Iran in an attempt to convince Iran to come back to the negotiating table.

Trump has shown a willingness to engage with Iran, though in a similar style to his North Korea diplomacy: ignore the experts and pursue a face-to-face meeting. Trump has expressed openness to meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani without conditions (though he later denied it). There was even some talk that the meeting might happen on the sidelines of the United Nations next week — though Iran has since said it’s not on their agenda.

After months of maximum pressure, there looked to be at least the possibility of a minor breakthrough. But this attack on the oil facilities might derail any chance of a diplomatic opening.

The Saudi attack is also likely to bring renewed attention on Capitol Hill to the US’s involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been pushing to end America’s involvement in the conflict for months, including passing a historic resolution to end US support in April that Trump ultimately vetoed. They’re now trying to pass an amendment to the defense budget as another way to cut off US backing for the Saudis in a war that has produced one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes.

For that reason, and because the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has badly tarnished Saudi Arabia’s image in America, the US public probably isn’t all that eager to get involved in a whole new war against Iran merely to defend Saudi Arabia’s interests.

The really big question now is what Saudi Arabia will do. Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman has said that his country is “willing and able” to respond. Although Saudi officials blamed Iranian weapons for the strike, they appeared to avoid outright blaming Tehran. Experts point out that neither Saudi Arabia or Iran want — or are even prepared — to fight an all-out war against each other, but there’s still a risk they could stumble into one.

“The Saudis have to retaliate one way or another,” Jean-Francois Seznec, a nonresident senior fellow at the global energy center at the Atlantic Council said on a call Monday. Seznec referred to it as the “inertia of war” — all parties agree that war is not good for anybody, “but nobody can stop it.”

This weekend’s attacks on the oil plants in Saudi Arabia undoubtedly hurt the country. Now, the world is waiting to see just how much — and what Riyadh is willing to do in response.