Pompeo says Saudi attack was ‘act of war’ as Trump orders new sanctions

Yesterday President Trump ordered new sanctions on Iran and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of carrying out Saturday’s attack on the Abqaiq oil refinery and Khurais oil site in Saudi Arabia, calling it ‘an act of war’.

What happened? Saudi Arabia’s defence ministry yesterday revealed the remnants of what it claimed were drones and cruise missiles used in the attacks, alleging that these prove Iranian involvement. Details of the sanctions have not yet been released, although Trump said these would be given in the next 48 hours. Iran’s Foreign Minister responded on Twitter saying that Trump is “escalating US economic war on Iranians”.

  • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia yesterday. The State Department said: “The secretary and the crown prince agreed that this was an unacceptable and unprecedented attack that not only threatened Saudi Arabian national security, but also endangered the lives of all the American citizens living and working in Saudi Arabia, as well as the world’s energy supply in general.”
  • Mike Pompeo directly accused Iran for “an Iranian attack” that was an “act of war.”  He added: “As far as we know, the equipment used is unknown to be in the Houthis’ arsenal.”
  • Earlier on Wednesday, Saudi spokesman, Col. Turki al-Maliki provided more details about the attack. He said 18 drones hit one site and four cruise missiles hit another, while three missiles had fallen short of their target. He said the attack was “unquestionably sponsored by Iran.”
  • A US official told CBS News that the attack on Saudi oil facilities was approved by Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme leader.

Context: Iran, the US and Saudi Arabia all want to avoid a wider conflict but the attacks on Saturday were a serious escalation and the US and Saudi Arabia are attempting to craft the right response.

  • Iran said the attack was carried out by Houthi rebels, with Rouhani telling a cabinet meeting yesterday that the Houthis were sending a “warning” to Riyadh to end its involvement in Yemen, adding “we don’t want conflict in the region.”
  • Saudi Arabia’s request for a UN investigation is clearly a delaying tactic. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres confirmed yesterday that experts have already left for the kingdom, under the provisions of the UNSC Resolution which endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal.
  • President Macron also confirmed that France will send a team of experts to help with the investigations.

Looking ahead:

  • The US is sending conflicting messages to Iran – Pompeo is being more strident but Trump is hesitant. The Saudis are unwilling to pursue a military response fearing  retaliation and an escalation. Saudi air defences have critical flaws, while the importance of Aramco, and its recent stock offering, will make the Kingdom even more reluctant to risk a deeper conflict.

The main question now is what happens if further investigations prove beyond doubt that the attacks originated from Iran. How will Saudi Arabi and the US respond?

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