Saudi Arabia still doesn’t know launch site for oil attacks

Vivian Nereim and Anthony DiPaola

Saudi Arabia said attacks on its critical oil infrastructure were “unquestionably sponsored by Iran” but stopped short of saying the strikes were launched directly from or by the Islamic Republic, claims that could have propelled a drift toward war.

With parts of drones and missiles recovered from the attack sites at Abqaiq and Khurais on display, Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman Turki al-Maliki on Wednesday showed maps aimed at proving the strikes originated from the north and could not have been launched by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who shortly after repeated their claims of responsibility.

“Despite Iran’s effort to make it appear so,” the attack didn’t originate from Yemen, Maliki said. “Data analysis of the attack sites indicate weapons of Iranian origin.”

Journalists film what Saudi military spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki said was evidence of Iranian weaponry used in the attack targeted Saudi Aramco's facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, during a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019.

Iran has denied it was involved in the worst attack in Saudi Arabia’s history and President Hassan Rouhani said earlier Wednesday that his country did not want war.

The Saudi defense official’s comments, and moves by the U.S., suggested the two allies were also working to deescalate tensions in the region. President Donald Trump, who had initially declared the U.S. “locked and loaded” for a response, said Wednesday he was tightening sanctions on Iran.

Iran’s economy is already under severe pressure from existing sanctions, though analysts said there were still a number of potential targets for restrictions. Iran is gradually scaling back its commitments under the deal and has said it will not reopen talks without sanctions relief.

Speaking just before landing in Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – while broadly echoing Maliki’s claims on Iranian involvement – signaled he was working to build international diplomatic pressure to deter Iran.

Twenty-five pilotless aircraft and cruise missiles were used to attack the two sites, Maliki told reporters gathered in Riyadh. The weapons were of Iranian origin but Saudi Arabia was still working to pinpoint the exact launch point, he said. The range and accuracy of the weapons were beyond the capabilities of the Houthis, he added.

In comments made immediately after the Saudi briefing, Yemen’s Houthi military spokesman Yehya Saree said some of the drones used were new, with a range of up to 1,700 kilometers, and were launched from three different points inside Yemen. He said the drones fired long-range missiles and warned the United Arab Emirates that it could be also be targeted. The U.A.E. said weeks ago that it was drawing down its role in the Yemen war after four years.

Maliki displayed surveillance video purporting to show drones moving in a north to south direction, however. He said Saudi Arabia was working to share the information with United Nations experts.

“We are working as I mentioned to determine the exact position of the launch point,” Maliki said. “Whether it’s been launched from Yemen, launched from somewhere else, those people they will be held accountable, and this is a decision at a political level in our country.”

Addressing a cabinet meeting, Rouhani said the assault on the oil facilities was carried out by the Houthis retaliating against Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in their country and should serve as a “warning and lesson,” according to state TV.

Iran backs the Houthis, one of several militias it supports around the region, from Lebanon to Iraq. The confrontation has sporadically convulsed the Gulf, with the strikes on oil tankers, an American drone and a key pipeline, pushing the region to the brink of open conflict.

The U.S. and its Gulf allies “assumed the Iranians would take the maximum pressure without any significant reaction,” said David Roberts, an assistant professor at King’s College London who studies the Gulf. “They’ve all been completely blindsided by the potent nature of the Iranian response.”

With assistance from Josh Wingrove.