A satellite image of the Abqaiq processing plant in Saudi Arabia on Saturday. United States officials have blamed Iran for airstrikes there.
By Ben Hubbard, David D. Kirkpatrick, Edward Wong and Richard Pérez-Peña
Sept. 18, 2019
Updated 7:17 p.m. ET
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran on Wednesday of carrying out an “act of war” with aerial strikes on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia last weekend, as he met with Saudi leaders to discuss building a coalition to deter further attacks.
Mr. Pompeo’s condemnation was the strongest yet from any American official about the attack on Saturday in Saudi Arabia, which cut oil production, left two of the kingdom’s most vital facilities smoldering and exposed failures by the Saudis and their American allies in detecting an incoming aerial assault.
The attack also raised fears that tensions between the United States and Iran, which have been rising since President Trump abandoned the Iranian nuclear agreement last year, could escalate into a new war.
Despite Mr. Pompeo’s statement, President Trump pushed back against another American military entanglement in the Middle East, speaking only of unspecified new sanctions on Iran.
Asked about a possible retaliatory American attack on Iran, Mr. Trump told reporters in Los Angeles: “There are many options. There’s the ultimate option and there are options a lot less than that.”
In Saudi Arabia, military officials displayed parts of destroyed drones and cruise missiles that they said pointed to Iranian complicity. But they did not specify who exactly had carried out the attack, from where or what action they wanted the United States to take.
The attack shocked Saudi leaders and Trump administration officials, who have spent years casting Iran as the prime troublemaker in the Middle East and vowing to confront it forcefully. But as the days have passed since the strike, it has become clear that other factors are restraining them from putting bellicose rhetoric into action.
Mr. Trump, who ran on pledges to end America’s wars abroad, has indicated he would like another option short of dragging the United States into a military conflict over an attack that killed no Americans.
And as much as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, hates Iran’s rising regional influence, analysts said that he has reasons to tread carefully: The attack laid bare the kingdom’s vulnerabilities; Prince Mohammed questions the support he would get from the Trump administration in a real war with Iran; and further violence could dampen interest in his proposed public sale of stock in Aramco, the Saudi state oil monopoly.
The Aramco stock offering is central to Prince Mohammed’s plans for the country, which include diversifying the economy away from oil and creating more jobs for young Saudis.
Such caution toward Iran marks a U-turn for the 34-year-old crown prince, who has belittled Iran’s military abilities, compared its Supreme Leader to Hitler and suggested that Saudi Arabia would take the fight to Iran inside its own borders.
“We will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia,” he told an interviewer in 2017. “We will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, and not in Saudi Arabia.”
Who Was Behind the Saudi Oil Attack? What the Evidence Shows American officials have offered only satellite photos, which analysts said were insufficient to prove where the attack came from, which weapons were used and who fired them.
But the attack showed that Iran, which has spent years building a network of allied armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, can hit Saudi Arabia in its most sensitive spots, and in a way that gives Iran a level of deniability.
“He knows he has a lot to lose,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, referring to Prince Mohammed. “You live in a castle with an arsonist next door, and the arsonist doesn’t have a castle — he has nothing to lose. And the arsonist has shown he can hit you again and again, with precision.”
The drones and cruise missiles said to have been used flew hundreds of miles undetected in a region dotted with American military bases. That raised questions about whether Saudi Arabia can protect itself even with American pledges of help, said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi commentator who speaks frequently with Saudi officials.
“The fact that this thing was able to slip through the American line of defense and then through the Saudi line of defense and hit with the precision that it did, frankly, it was an eye-opener,” he said. “So the question is can you get into a war today when you are not sure what the Americans will do?”
Both Prince Mohammed and Mr. Pompeo sought on Wednesday to frame the attack as the world’s problem.
In a phone call with the president of South Korea, Prince Mohammed called the attack “a true test of international will to confront sabotage that threatens international security and stability.”
In comments to reporters after a flight to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he met with Prince Mohammed, Mr. Pompeo accused Iran of having carried out the strikes.
“We were blessed there were no Americans killed in this attack,” he added, “but anytime you have an act of war of this nature, there’s always a risk that could happen.”
Instead of threatening a military response, Mr. Pompeo spoke of assembling an international coalition to deter further strikes, without specifying who it would include and what it might do.
“That’s my mission here, is to work with our partners in the region,” he said. He spoke of working with European countries and planned to visit the United Arab Emirates, a close Saudi ally, before returning to Washington.
The State Department said in a statement after their meeting that Mr. Pompeo and Prince Mohammed had “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.”
It said they “discussed the need for the international community to come together to counter the continued threat of the Iranian regime.”
Earlier, at a news conference in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, the Saudi Defense Ministry provided new details about the weapons it said had been used and showed remnants of drone and cruise missiles it said were plainly of Iranian origin.
A ministry spokesman, Col. Turki al-Maliki, said 18 drones struck one site and four cruise missiles hit another, while three missiles had fallen short of their target.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, center, in Tehran on Wednesday. Mr. Rouhani has said he would meet President Trump only if sanctions were lifted first.
Saudi Arabia had yet to determine who exactly had launched the attack or from where, but he said it had come from the north, in the direction of Iran and Iraq, not the south, in the direction of Yemen.
The attack, Colonel al-Maliki said, “was unquestionably sponsored by Iran.”
American and Saudi officials have said previously that the attack used Iranian weapons. The Americans also have said that evidence, not yet made public, points to a strike launched from Iran.
The Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have been bombed by a Saudi-led coalition for more than four years, claimed credit for the attack while Iran, which backs the Houthis, has denied any responsibility. Iranian officials have said the attacks were in response to the deaths and destruction wrought by the Saudis in Yemen.
American and Saudi officials have said the Houthis possessed neither the sophistication nor the weapons to have carried out the aerial assault on the oil facilities, a point Mr. Pompeo reiterated on Wednesday.
“As for how we know, the equipment used is unknown to be in the Houthis’ arsenal,” he said.
The attack came amid tensions that have been rising between the Trump administration and Iran since President Trump renounced the 2015 agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program in return for economic relief. Since then, the United States has been applying a strategy of “maximum pressure” of economic sanctions to punish Iran for what the Trump administration considers its malign activities in the Middle East.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that he had told the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, “to substantially increase Sanctions on the country of Iran.” It was not immediately clear how extensive the latest round of penalties would be, but Mr. Trump said details would be released within 48 hours.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran responded on Twitter that Mr. Trump was “escalating U.S. economic war on Iranians.”
Mr. Trump and Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, have been expected to cross paths at the annual United Nations General Assembly session in New York next week, and there was speculation this summer about a possible face-to-face encounter.
But on Wednesday, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported that an Iranian advance team had been unable to travel to New York because the United States had not granted visas. As a result, it said, Mr. Rouhani and his delegation might not attend the gathering, which runs from Tuesday through the following Monday.
Mr. Pompeo declined to comment on the visa situation. Asked about it at the United Nations, Secretary General António Guterres told reporters he had been “in contact with the host state in order to solve all outstanding visa problems in relation to delegations,” and he hoped that would “solve the problem.”
A senior Trump administration official said that Iran had sought visas for 124 people to assist its delegation, and that the State Department had denied around 40 to those found linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which the administration designated as a terrorist organization in April.
The State Department did not deny a visa to Mr. Zarif, the official said, although his movements are limited to the area close to the United Nations.
Mr. Trump has said repeatedly that he is open to a meeting with Mr. Rouhani, which would be the first between leaders of the two countries after four decades of antagonism, but Mr. Rouhani has said the United States must first lift economic sanctions.
Mr. Rouhani sent a formal note on Monday to the United States denying an Iranian role in the Saudi attack and warning that any American action against Iran would bring retaliation, Iranian state news media reported on Wednesday. The note went through Swiss envoys who act as intermediaries because the United States and Iran do not have diplomatic relations.
Follow Richard Pérez-Peña and Edward Wong on Twitter: @perezpena @ewong
Ben Hubbard, Rick Gladstone and Lara Jakes contributed reporting.