Attack on Saudi oil sites raises risks amid US-Iran tension
A weekend drone attack on Saudi Arabia that cut into global energy supplies and halved the kingdom’s oil productio, threatened yesterday to fuel a regional crisis as Iran denied US allegations it launched the assault, and tensions remained high over Tehran’s collapsing nuclear deal. Satellite photos examined by The Associated Press suggested damage at the heart of the kingdom’s crucial oil-processing facility.
Iran called the US claims “maximum lies,” while a commander in its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard reiterated that its forces could strike US military bases across the Mideast with their arsenal of ballistic missiles. A prominent US senator suggested striking Iranian oil refineries in response to the assault, claimed by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil-processing facility.
“Because of the tension and sensitive situation, our region is like a powder keg,” warned Guard Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh. “When these contacts come too close, when forces come into contact with one another, it is possible a conflict happens because of a misunderstanding.”
Actions on any side could break into a twilight war that has been raging just below the surface of the wider Persian Gulf in recent months. Already, there have been mysterious attacks on oil tankers that America blames on Tehran, at least one suspected Israeli strike on Shiite forces in Iraq, and Iran shooting down a US military surveillance drone.
The attack Saturday on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq plant and its Khurais oilfield led to the interruption of an estimated 5.7 million barrels of the kingdom’s crude oil production per day, equivalent to more than five per cent of the world’s daily supply. It remains unclear how King Salman and his assertive son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will respond to an attack targeting the heart of the Saudi oil industry.
There was no immediate impact on global oil prices from the attacks as markets were closed for the weekend, but analysts anticipate a spike in oil prices when markets reopen Monday. Saudi Arabia has promised to fill in the cut in production with its reserves, but has not said how long it will take to repair the damage.
Images from the European Commission’s Sentinel-2 satellite examined by the AP showed black char marks at the heart of the Abqaiq plant on Sunday, marks not seen over the prior month. The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in August identified the area with the char marks as the plant’s stabilisation area. The centre said the area includes “storage tanks and processing and compressor trains – which greatly increases the likelihood of a strike successfully disrupting or destroying its operations.”
ARMACO stays silent
The state-run oil giant Saudi Aramco, which the kingdom hopes to offer a sliver of in a public stock offering, did not respond to a request for comment.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directly blamed Iran for the Saudi attack on Twitter, without offering evidence to support his claim.
“Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” Pompeo wrote late Saturday. “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”
The US, Western nations, their Gulf Arab allies and UN experts say Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons and drones – a charge that Tehran denies.
US officials previously alleged at least one recent drone attack on Saudi Arabia came from Iraq, where Iran backs Shiite militias. Those militias in recent weeks have been targeted themselves by mysterious airstrikes, with at least one believed to have been carried out by Israel.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi yesterday dismissed Pompeo’s remarks as “blind and futile comments.”
“The Americans adopted the ‘maximum pressure’ policy against Iran, which, due to its failure, is leaning toward ‘maximum lies,’” Mousavi said in a statement.
Separately, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s office issued a statement on Sunday denying the drone attack came from there. Iraq “abides by its constitution that prevents the use of its lands to launch aggressions against neighboring countries,” the statement said.
Oil-rich Kuwait also said it would increase security around the country’s “vital sites” over the attacks.
Houthi leader Muhammad al-Bukhaiti reiterated his group’s claim of responsibility, telling The Associated Press on Sunday it exploited “vulnerabilities” in Saudi air defences to strike the targets. He did not elaborate.
Iran, meanwhile, kept up its own threats.