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U.S. accuses Iran of drone attack on Saudi Aramco plants

Reuters, AP

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday accused Iran of leading attacks on Saudi oil plants that cut the kingdom’s output roughly in half, ruling out Yemeni involvement and denouncing Tehran for false diplomacy.

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group claimed credit for Saturday’s attacks on two plants at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, including the world’s biggest petroleum processing facility.

Pompeo, however, said on Twitter that there was no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.

“Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia while Rouhani and Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy,” Pompeo said, referring to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.

“Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” he added.

The State Department declined to provide any evidence to bolster Pompeo’s claim.

“We call on all nations to publicly and unequivocally condemn Iran’s attacks,” Pompeo said, warning that the Trump administration would work with its allies to make sure Iran is “held accountable for its aggression.”

The tweets signaled a more hawkish stance in Washington toward Tehran, following signs of a possible thaw in relations between the two nations after months of escalation.

Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from a 2015 pact that aimed to keep a lid on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and he has imposed a series of sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

But in recent weeks, Trump has said he would be open to meeting with Rouhani, perhaps on the sidelines of the United National General Assembly in New York later this month. Pompeo has said such talks could take place without any preconditions.

Rouhani has said that Tehran, which denies seeking nuclear weapons, would not talk to the United States until Washington lifts the sanctions.

Houthi military spokesman Yahia Sarie, in a short address aired by their Al-Masirah satellite news channel, said the rebels launched 10 drones after receiving “intelligence” support from those inside the kingdom. He warned that attacks by the rebels would only get worse if the war continues.

“The only option for the Saudi government is to stop attacking us,” Sarie said.

Houthi rebels have been using drones in combat since the start of the Saudi-led war. The first appeared to be hobby-kit-style drones. Later, versions nearly identical to Iranian models turned up.

Iran denies supplying the Houthis with weapons, although the U.N., the West and Gulf Arab nations say Tehran does.

U.N. investigators said the Houthis’ new UAV-X drone likely has a range of up to 1,500 kilometers (930 miles). That puts the far reaches of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in range.

While Saudi Arabia has taken steps to protect itself and its oil infrastructure, analysts had warned that Abqaiq remained vulnerable. The Rapidan Energy Group, a Washington-based advisory group, warned in May that “a successful attack could lead to a monthslong disruption of most Saudi production and nearly all spare production.” It called Abqaiq, close to the eastern Saudi city of Dammam, “the most important oil facility in the world.”

The war has become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The violence has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine and killed more than 90,000 people since 2015, according to the U.S.-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, which tracks the conflict.

The rebels have flown drones into the radar arrays of Saudi Arabia’s Patriot missile batteries, according to Conflict Armament Research, disabling them and allowing the Houthis to fire ballistic missiles into the kingdom unchallenged. The Houthis launched drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia’s crucial East-West Pipeline in May. In August, Houthi drones struck Saudi Arabia’s Shaybah oil field.

Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, a close Trump ally and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Saturday’s attacks showed Iran is not interested in peace and is instead pursuing nuclear weapons and regional dominance.

“It is now time for the U.S. to put on the table an attack on Iranian oil refineries if they continue their provocations or increase nuclear enrichment,” Graham said on Twitter.

Others cast doubt on Pompeo’s allegations.

“This is such irresponsible simplification and it’s how we get into dumb wars,” tweeted Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a committee member. “Iran is backing the Houthis and has been a bad actor, but it’s just not as simple as Houthis=Iran.”

Washington’s allies overseas will want to see solid evidence of Iran’s involvement, said Suzanne Maloney, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

“It’s credible that the Iranians had something to do with this,” said Maloney. “We’ll have to wait and see how they’ll (the administration) marshal the evidence.”

Saturday’s attacks follow earlier cross-border attacks on Saudi oil installations and on oil tankers in Persian Gulf waters.

Saudi Arabia, which leads a Sunni Muslim coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 against the Houthis, has blamed regional rival Shiite Iran for previous attacks. Tehran has denied the allegations. Riyadh also accuses Iran of arming the Houthis, a charge denied both by the group and Tehran.

The White House said the United States was committed to keeping oil markets well-supplied in the wake of the attack and the U.S. Energy Department said the administration could release oil from strategic reserves if necessary.

The attacks on the two facilities cut Saudi Arabia’s crude oil supply by around 5.7 million barrels per day or about 50 percent of its output.

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