Saudi offers 'proof' of Iran's role in oil attack and urges US response

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor and Julian Borger in Washington
Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia has ramped up the pressure on Donald Trump to respond to a devastating strike on two major oil installations, displaying drone and missile technology it insisted showed the attack was “unquestionably sponsored by Iran”.

At a press conference in Riyadh a Saudi defence spokesman claimed that 25 drones and cruise missiles were used in the attack on the Aramco facilities on Saturday, saying repeatedly they had been fired from the north, the direction of Iran.

Asked for his response, Trump said “We know very much what happened” but argued that it was “a sign of strength” that he has thus far taken no military action against Iran.

“How did going into Iraq work out?” Trump asked, then added: “There’s plenty of time to do some dastardly things. It’s very easy to start. And we’ll see what happens.”

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, confirmed on Wednesday that an international team of experts was on the way to Saudi Arabia to investigate.

Trump put the emphasis on further sanctions on Iran, tweeting on Wednesday morning that he had instructed the US treasury to “substantially increase” sanctions. He later told reporters he would provide details within the next 48 hours.

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, arrived in Jeddah on Wednesday to confer with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, on a coordinated response.

“We are working to build a coalition to develop a plan to deter them. This is what needs to happen. This is an attack on a scale that we’ve just not seen before,” Pompeo told journalists, describing the assault as “an act of war”.

The Saudi press conference came on a day when:

  • President Hassan Rouhani of Iran insisted the attack had been carried out by Houthi rebels in Yemen, and threatened to respond to any US military attacks.

  • The Houthis held their own press conference to substantiate their claim of responsibility.

  • And Trump discussed the crisis by phone with Boris Johnson, agreeing on “the need for a united diplomatic response”, according to No 10.

At the Saudi press conference, Lt Col Turki al-Maliki said the country was still working to identify the precise launch point of the attack, but claimed the debris and data technology was of Iranian origin, and promised to share all the evidence with the UN and Saudi’s allies.

He also repeatedly asserted it was the responsibility of the whole international community to respond, saying: “Iran’s continued aggression and continued support for militia groups harms us all.”

Related: Everything you need to know about the Saudi Arabia oil attacks

He said Saudi Arabia had recently intercepted 282 ballistic missiles and 258 UAVs or drones. The bulk of these are likely to have come from Yemen.

He added: “The cruise missiles used were of advanced capability, we have the date of the manufacture which is 2019 – Iran’s IRGC has this type of weaponry – all the evidence that we have gathered from the site proves that Iran’s weaponry was used in the attack.”

The cruise missile could not reach the oil facilities if they had been fired from Yemen, he said.

In his own comments to the press before landing in Jeddah, Pompeo claimed there was solid proof that Iran had carried out the attack.

“This was an Iranian attack. It’s not the case that you can subcontract out the devastation of 5% of the world’s global energy supply and think that you can absolve yourself of responsibilities,” he said.

“The intelligence community has high confidence that these were not weapons that would have been in the possession of the Houthis.”

Pompeo stressed that the US aim was to bolster Saudi defences to prevent another attack, rather than retaliate for the air strikes on Saturday.

“We want to work to make sure that infrastructure and resources are put in place such that attacks like this would be less successful than this one appears to have been,” he said.

Despite the display of fallen ordnance, the Saudis have clearly not yet been able to make an unanswerable case that Iran was directly involved. At one point Al-Maliki said the missiles may have come from Yemen’s Houthi rebels, as Iran and the Houthis themselves assert.

The show of weaponry came as the Saudi deputy defence minister, Khalid bin Salman, lavished praise on the US administration for confronting “the Iranian regime’s and terrorist organisations’ aggression in an unprecedented way”.

But he also pointedly reminded the US that Barack Obama had committed the US in 2015 to an unequivocal policy “to use all elements of power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region and confront external aggression against our partners and our allies, as we did in the Gulf war”.

Former Obama administration officials say this did not amount to a treaty, but a unilateral statement of US policy.

How long has the war been going on?

Yemen has been troubled by civil wars for decades, but the current conflict intensified in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognised government against Houthi rebels aligned with the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The war is widely regarded as having turned a poor country into a humanitarian catastrophe. Riyadh expected its air power, backed by regional coalition including the United Arab Emirates, could defeat the Houthi insurgency in a matter of months.

Instead some reports suggest nearly 100,000 people have died. Others put the death toll much lower, but fighting this year alone has displaced 250,000 people. There are more than 30 active front lines. A total of 80% of the population – more than 24 million people – need assistance and protection, including 10 million who rely on food aid to survive.

What is the cause of the war?

Its roots lie in the Arab spring. Pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in a bid to force the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to end his 33-year rule. He responded with economic concessions but refused to resign.

By March 2011, tensions on the streets of the capital city, Sana’a, resulted in protesters dying at the hands of the military.

Following an internationally brokered deal, there was a transfer of power in November to the vice-president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, paving the way for elections in February 2012 – in which he was the only candidate to lead a transitional government. Hadi’s attempts at constitutional and budget reforms were rejected by Houthi rebels from the north.

The Houthis belong to a small branch of Shia Muslims known as Zaydis. They captured the capital, forcing Hadi to flee eventually to Riyadh.

What has happened to the peace process?

The UN brokered an agreement in Stockholm in December 2018 to demilitarise the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, and after five months of tortuous talks a small part of the agreement has been implemented on the ground. The Houthis had promised a two-phase redeployment out of the city, and agreed that an alternative force – poorly defined in the Stockholm agreement – would take over security in the areas they vacated. But talks between the Houthis and the UAE-backed government forces stalled over the details.

Faced by an impasse, the UN sanctioned a unilateral Houthi withdrawal from the three main ports on Yemen’s Red Sea coast – Hodeidah, Ras Issa and Saleef. The Yemeni government described the withdrawal as a sham, saying the Houthis had merely rebadged their fighters as coastguards. They pressed for the resignation of Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen. Not everyone in the Yemen government agreed with this analysis and the foreign minister quit.

No progress has been made on the second phase of redeployment, or the exchange of political prisoners. Griffiths is now trying to secure enough progress in Hodeidah to get off this hook and say the time is ripe for wider political talks on a transitional government to be held in Bonn.

Patrick Wintour, Diplomatic editor

So far Trump has proved reluctant to use force to rein in Iran, although the US Treasury has been mounting an ever more exhaustive regime of sanctions on the country since the US pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal last year.

US officials have reportedly presented a range of military responses to the president, prompting a formal written warning to Washington from Tehran that any US attack would lead to broader military retaliation.

The Houthis staged their own press conference in which army spokesman Brig Gen Yahya Serie tried to substantiate their claim of responsibility for the attack. He said the weapons that targeted Aramco were Qasif K-2 cruise missiles and Samad 3 drones possessing a range of 1,700km (1,050 miles), and were launched from three sites and timed to reach their targets from different angles simultaneously.

Versions of these weapons were displayed by the Houthis at a small arms exhibition on 7 July, but their true capability is unknown.

(May 12, 2019) 

The UAE says four commercial ships off its eastern coast 'were subjected to sabotage operations'.

(May 14, 2019) 

Yemen's Houthi rebels launch a drone attack on Saudi Arabia, striking a major oil pipeline and taking it out of service.

(May 16, 2019) 

Saudi Arabia blames Iran for the drone attack on its pipeline.

(May 19, 2019) 

A rocket lands near the US embassy in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, without harming anyone. It's not clear who is behind the attack, but after the initial reports, Donald Trump tweets: 'If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!'

(May 24, 2019) 

Senior Pentagon officer Vice-admiral Michael Gilday says the US has a high degree of confidence that Iran's Revolutionary Guards were responsible for the explosions on the four tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

(June 12, 2019) 

Saudi Arabia says 26 people were wounded in an attack by Yemen's Houthi rebels on an airport in the kingdom's south-western town of Abha.

(June 13, 2019) 

Two oil tankers near the strategic strait of Hormuz were reportedly attacked in an assault that left one ablaze and adrift. 44 sailors were evacuated from both vessels and the US navy assisted.

(June 20, 2019) 

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards say they have shot down what they called a US 'spy' drone they claim was flying in in the country’s airspace. The US military confirm one of its drones has been taken down, but say it was in international airspace.  

(June 21, 2019) 

Donald Trump reportedly gives approval for the US military to launch strikes on Iran in retaliation for the loss of the drone, before pulling back at the last minute.

(June 25, 2019) 

The Iranian and US presidents trade insults, with Hassan Rouhani suggesting that Donald Trump suffered from a “mental disorder” and Trump once more threatening Iran with “obliteration”.

(July 5, 2019) 

Iran summons UK ambassador over an incident off Gibraltar as Royal Marines seize a tanker the UK suspects of carrying oil to Syria.

(July 8, 2019) 

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the body tasked with verifying Iranian compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal, verifies that Tehran has breached the agreed 3.67% limit for enriched uranium.

(July 11, 2019) 

The UK government says three Iranian boats were warned off by the frigate HMS Montrose after Iranian boats 'attempted to impede' a British oil tanker in strait of Hormuz. Tehran denies involvement.

(July 19, 2019) 

In a major escalation, Iran seizes the Stena Impero, a British-flagged tanker, off its coast. Iranian officials later make it clear that the capture was in retaliation for the capture of the Iranian supertanker Grace 1 earlier in July.

(August 15, 2019) 

Despite US attempts in the courts to prevent it, Gibraltar says it will free oil tanker at centre of the Iran row.

Earlier, Iranian president said US claims that Tehran was involved in the attack on Saudi Arabian petroleum facilities were part of Washington’s continuing campaign to isolate Iran.

In a defiant video address, Rouhani insisted the attack had been mounted by the Houthis, and blamed Saudi Arabia for starting the four-year war there.

Rouhani said the Houthis attacked as a “warning” after attacks on hospitals, schools and markets in Yemen which have been blamed on the Saudi-led coalition.

Saudi Arabaia has urged foreign countries to join the investigation into the culprits, and announced on Wednesday that it was joining the US-led maritime security force operating in the Gulf.

So far European countries, as well as Saudi’s closest regional ally, the United Arab Emirates, have condemned the attack but are yet to attribute responsibility.

Saudi news agencies reported that the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, rang the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Johnson and Trump also discussed the crisis by phone on Wednesday, and according to Downing Street discussed “the need for a united diplomatic response from international partners. They also spoke about Iran and agreed that they must not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon”.

Saudi, criticised for its role in the war in Yemen and losing support on Capitol Hill, appears determined to try to build an international coalition and does not want to be left isolated in the event of a military confrontation with Tehran.