Saudi king slams Iran ‘chaos’, urges it to quit ‘expansionism’

Pentagon: Iran missiles unrivaled in Mideast – US aircraft carrier transits Hormuz

RIYADH: Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz greets the Shura Council yesterday as Secretary General of the top advisory body Abdullah Al-Sheikh looks on. – AFP

RIYADH/WASHINGTON: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman struck a defiant note against the kingdom’s enemies, saying yesterday that missile and drone strikes it blames on Iran had not halted development and reiterating that Riyadh will not hesitate to defend itself. He also urged archrival Iran to abandon an expansionist ideology that has “harmed” its own people, following violent street protests in the Islamic republic.

“We hope the Iranian regime choses the side of wisdom and realizes there is no way to overcome the international position that rejects its practices, without abandoning its expansionist and destructive thinking that has harmed its own people,” the king told the consultative Shura Council. The region’s leading Shiite and Sunni powers have no diplomatic ties and are at odds over a range of issues, including the wars in Syria and Yemen.

“The kingdom has suffered from the policies and practices of the Iranian regime and its proxies,” King Salman said, quoted by the foreign ministry, reiterating that Riyadh does not seek war but is “ready to defend its people”. In his annual address to the appointed Shura Council, he called again on the international community to stop Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and halt regional intervention, saying it was time to stop the “chaos and destruction” generated by Iran.

Saudi leaders regularly accuse Iran of stirring conflicts by supporting Shiite movements in the region. Tehran denies the charges and in turn says Riyadh supports radical Islamist groups. In Yemen, the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels have been fighting the government – backed by a Saudi-led military coalition – for than four years.

Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in the conflict in 2015, shortly after the Houthis took over the capital Sanaa. Tensions have soared between Riyadh and Tehran after a recent string of assaults on oil tankers and installations in the Gulf. In the latest attack on Sept 14, drone strikes targeted two Saudi oil facilities, temporarily knocking out half of the kingdom’s oil production. The attacks were claimed by the Houthis, but Washington and Riyadh said Iran was responsible, and that the strikes were carried out with advanced missiles and drones.

King Salman said the oil policy of the kingdom, the world’s top oil exporter, is aimed at promoting market stability. “Though the kingdom has been subjected to attacks by 286 ballistic missiles and 289 drones, in a way that has not been seen in any other country, that has not affected the kingdom’s development process or the lives of its citizens and residents,” the king told assembled council members, royals and foreign diplomats.

He praised the ability of state oil giant Saudi Aramco to quickly restore oil production capacity after attacks on its facilities in September which initially cut more than 5 percent of global supply. He said Aramco’s response had proven the kingdom’s ability to meet global demand in any shortage, and praised the company’s initial public offering, which began this week, saying it would attract foreign investment and create thousands of jobs.

(Left to right) US aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, air-defense destroyer HMS Defender and guided-missile destroyer USS Farragut transit the Strait of Hormuz on Tuesday. – AFP

A Pentagon study said Tuesday that despite decades of sanctions, Iran has succeeded in developing its missile arsenal, which is larger than that of any other Middle Eastern country including Israel. “Iran has an extensive missile development program, and the size and sophistication of its missile force continues to grow despite decades of counter-proliferation efforts aimed at curbing its advancement,” the Defense Intelligence Agency said.

The study said Iran considered missiles to be a strategic necessity due to the limitations of its air force, which still has some US planes ordered by the pro-Western shah, who was toppled in 1979. “Lacking a modern air force, Iran has embraced ballistic missiles as a long-range strike capability to dissuade its adversaries in the region – particularly the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia – from attacking Iran,” the report said.

Iran has “the largest missile force in the Middle East,” the report said. A US intelligence official said on condition of anonymity that the assessment included Israel. The report said that Iran had developed a series of missiles that could strike at a distance of 1,250 miles (2,000 km) – capable of reaching Israel or Saudi Arabia.

Iran in 2017 showcased the 1,250-mile-range Khoramshahr missile, which can carry multiple warheads. The Pentagon study, in line with a tweet at the time by President Donald Trump, said the missile appeared to use technology from North Korea. But the Pentagon study said that Iran was spending slightly less on its military, with $20.7 billion budgeted in 2017. Iran’s economy has come under growing pressure since Trump last year withdrew from a denuclearization accord and reimposed sweeping sanctions.

Christian Saunders, an expert on Iran at the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned of the impact if an arms embargo is lifted on Iran next year. “These restrictions are set to expire in October 2020, providing Tehran an opportunity to acquire some advanced capabilities that have been beyond its reach for decades,” Saunders told reporters. The Islamic republic has faced UN-mandated sanctions on importing most weapons since 2006, but the embargo is set to expire five years after implementation of the nuclear deal.

The accord, which Iran reached in 2015 with former president Barack Obama’s administration as well as Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, is on life support after Trump left it and as Tehran takes steps to end compliance as a protest over continued sanctions. A US intelligence official expected Iran to concentrate on procuring fighter jets and battle tanks, with Russia and China the most likely suppliers. Iran argues that it must keep up its defenses, pointing to Western support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and Israel’s undeclared nuclear program.

Meanwhile, the US aircraft carrier strike group Abraham Lincoln sailed through the key Strait of Hormuz on Tuesday to show Washington’s “commitment” to freedom of navigation, the Pentagon said, amid tensions with Tehran. The group’s move through the strategic waterway separating Iran and the United Arab Emirates towards the Gulf was scheduled, and unfolded without incident, the US Navy said in a statement. The strait is a chokepoint for a third of the world’s seaborne oil.

A Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity said exchanges between US forces and Iran’s coastguard were “safe and professional”. It was the first time a US aircraft carrier group went through the strait since Iran downed a US drone in June in the same area. Also in June, two foreign tankers were attacked in the area. Those attacks were blamed on Iran, though it denied involvement.

The last time a US aircraft carrier transited the strait was in April, the Pentagon official said. The Strait of Hormuz is particularly vulnerable because it is very narrow – about 50 km wide – and not very deep. Iran, which has a sophisticated military and controls much of the oil shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz, regularly threatens to shut it down if its enemies, such as the United States, commit hostile acts. – Agencies