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US says Iran behind Saudi oil site attack

What happened: On Saturday two oil installations in the east of Saudi Arabia were targeted in a large-scale attack.

  • The US government published satellite photographs showing at least 17 points of impact at the Abqaiq oil refinery and Khurais oil site. According to the New York Times, officials said the attack was a combination of drones and cruise missiles.
  • Shortly after the attack the Houthis, a Yemeni militia which has been at war with Saudi Arabia since 2015, claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement they claimed to have used 10 drones to attack the Abqaiq oil refinery and Khurais oil site in an operation called the “Second Operation of Balanced Deterrence.”
  • However, the Trump administration believes that the attack might have originated from southern Iraq by Iranian-backed militias, arguing that the scope and precision of the attacks were beyond the capability of the Houthi rebels alone.
  • The US assessment was given extra credence when the Kuwaiti government announced it had launched an investigation after flying objects were reported entering its airspace before the attack.
  • US President Donald Trump tweeted that there was ‘reason to believe that we know the culprit’ and said the US was ‘locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack and under what terms we would proceed!’
  • Iran has rejected the US claim that it was behind the attack whilst Iraq has denied its territory was used for the attack. Foreign Minister Mohammd Javad Zarif accused the US of “deceit” and said “blaming Iran won’t end the disaster” in Yemen.

Context: The US allegation that Iran was behind the attack marks a significant escalation in several months of tensions between Iran and the US. Iran is believed to be behind several attacks in the Gulf recently in order to punish the US for the continuation of its maximum pressure campaign.

  • Oil prices surged by nearly 20 per cent after the attacks led to the interruption of an estimated 5.7 million barrels of the Kingdom’s crude oil production per day, equivalent to more than 5 per cent of the world’s daily oil supply.
  • The Houthis have targeted southern Saudi Arabia with missiles and drone attacks sporadically since the Kingdom intervened in the civil war in Yemen in 2016. In mid-June 2019, a cruise missile fired by the Houthis hit the terminal of Abha Airport in southern Saudi Arabia, wounding a total of 26 passengers.
  • The attack comes as speculation rises over potential talks between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the UN General Assembly this week.

Looking ahead: At the moment neither the US nor Saudi Arabia have specifically blamed Iran directly for the attack, otherwise they would be compelled to react. President Trump’s warning echoed one he made in June after Iran shot down an American surveillance drone. He pulled back from retaliating after military officials said that up to 150 Iranians might be killed.

Trump’s statement appears to imply he is waiting for Saudi Arabia to confirm who they think was responsible. The escalation in tension has however decreased the chance of a face to face meeting between Trump and the Iranian President at the UN.