President Donald Trump said the United States is “locked and loaded” to respond to attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure that have sent oil prices soaring, after Washington pointed to Iran as culprit.
“Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are 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!” Trump tweeted on Sunday, September 15.
It is the first time Trump has hinted at a potential American military response to the attacks, which slashed Saudi oil production by half and led both the kingdom and the United States to announce they may tap their strategic reserves.
The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is bogged down in a five-year war, claimed Saturday’s strikes against two plants owned by state energy giant Aramco.
Houthi rebels launched “a large-scale operation involving 10 drones that targeted refineries in Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia,” according to the group’s Al-Masirah television.
But there are indications that cruise missiles rather than drones were used.
Reuters reported unnamed senior U.S. administration officials as saying on Sunday that the strikes came from a west-northwest direction rather than from Yemen to the south.
Photos released by Trump administration show extent of weekend attack on Saudi oil industry. US officials say evidence now pointing towards cruise missile attacks from Iraq or Iran, not drone strikes from Houthis in Yemen. But no official assessments yet from DC or Riyadh. pic.twitter.com/0HDz4DFXnH
— Dion Nissenbaum (@DionNissenbaum) September 15, 2019
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed the finger squarely at Tehran, saying there was no evidence the “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply” was launched from Yemen.
“The United States will work with our partners and allies to ensure that energy markets remain well supplied and Iran is held accountable for its aggression,” Pompeo said.
That drew an angry response from Tehran, where foreign ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi said: “Such fruitless and blind accusations and remarks are incomprehensible and meaningless.”
The remarks were designed to damage Iran’s reputation and provide a pretext for “future actions” against the Islamic republic, he added.
Iraq, caught between its two main allies – Iran and the U.S. – also denied any link to the attacks amid media speculation that the attack was launched from its territory.
Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said the kingdom is “willing and able” to respond to this “terrorist aggression.”
Oil prices soar
Oil prices soared by more than 10% in early Asia trading on Monday, while Saudi Arabia focused on restoring production at the plants.
Saturday’s explosions set off fires that engulfed the Abqaiq plant, the world’s largest oil processing facility, and nearby Khurais, which hosts a massive oil field. No casualties were reported but the full extent of the damage was not clear.
Saudi’s energy infrastructure has been hit by the Houthis many times before, but this strike was of a different order, abruptly halting 5.7 million barrels per day or about 6% of the world’s oil supply.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” said Bill Farren-Price, director of the London-based RS Energy Group. “It is now clear that Saudi and other Gulf oil facilities are vulnerable to this kind of attack, which means that the geopolitical risk premium for oil needs to rise.”
Aramco also said it will dip into its reserves to offset the disruption. On Saturday, CEO Amin Nasser said that “work is underway” to restore production, but the incident could affect investor confidence ahead of Aramco’s stock market debut.
A significant volume of oil production can be restored within days but the company would need weeks to reach full output again, Bloomberg News reported Sunday, citing unnamed sources.
Trump tweeted that he had “authorized the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, if needed, in a to-be-determined amount” that is “sufficient to keep the markets well-supplied.”
The president said he also “informed all appropriate agencies to expedite approvals of the oil pipelines currently in the permitting process in Texas and various other States,” without naming specific projects.
Following a phone call between Trump and Prince Mohammed, the White House condemned the attacks on “infrastructure vital to the global economy.”
Iran and the U.S. have been at loggerheads since May last year, when Trump pulled out of a landmark 2015 deal with world powers that promised Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbing its nuclear program.
Despite the U.S. accusation, the White House said on Sunday Trump may still meet his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly.
Saudi Arabia has spent billions on military hardware but recent events have underscored the vulnerability of its infrastructure.
The Houthis have staged repeated cross-border missile and drone attacks targeting Saudi air bases and other facilities in what they say is retaliation for the Saudi-led bombing campaign on rebel-held areas in Yemen.
With reporting from AFP