Riyadh was ready to help Iran tanker – Tehran says ready for talks with Saudi

WASHINGTON: The Pentagon announced Friday it was bolstering US forces in Saudi Arabia after Riyadh asked for reinforcements following the September 14 drone-and-missile attack on Saudi oil plants which Washington blames on Iran. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that two fighter squadrons and additional missile defense batteries were being sent to Saudi Arabia, for a total of about 3,000 new troops from September this year.


The move comes as tensions jumped Friday after Tehran said that suspected missiles had struck an Iranian tanker in the Red Sea off the coast of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Tehran did not blame archrival Riyadh for the attack, and US defense officials said they were still looking into it and had no immediate explanation.


Esper said he had spoken with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Friday to discuss adding US firepower to the oil giant’s defenses against Iranian attacks. “It is clear that the Iranians are responsible for the recent attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities,” he said. “Despite Iran’s attempts to deny their involvement, the evidence recovered so far proves that Tehran is responsible for these attacks.”


The Sept 14 attack knocked out two major processing facilities of state oil giant Aramco in Khurais and Abqaiq, roughly halving Saudi Arabia’s oil production. Washington condemned the attacks as a “act of war” but neither the Saudis nor the United States have undertaken overt retaliation. But the incident added to tensions already soaring since early this year when Iran was accused of attaching mines to several tankers moored off Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and then attacking or seizing others near the crucial Strait of Hormuz.


Esper said that since May the United States has increased its 70,000-strong presence in the Middle East by 14,000 personnel, most of those deployed to the Gulf region in response to Iran’s actions. “The US military has on alert additional army, navy, marine and air force units to quickly provide increased capability in the region if necessary,” he said Friday. He also urged US allies in Europe to follow America’s lead with their own defensive assets “for regional stability”. The deployments authorized Friday include two additional fighter squadrons, and supporting personnel, along with additional Patriot and THAAD missile defense batteries.


The explosion on the Iranian tanker in the Red Sea Friday remained a mystery. The National Iranian Tanker Company said the hull of the Sabiti was hit by two separate explosions off of Jeddah, saying they were “probably caused by missile strikes”. It initially blamed Saudi Arabia but then recanted the allegation, and no one claimed responsibility.
Oil prices surged about two percent on the news, which raised fresh concerns about a possible clash between the Iranians and Saudis. “This clearly puts fuel on the Mideast fire,” SEB commodities analyst Bjarne Schieldrop told AFP. “After the attack on Saudi a few weeks ago… it’s not a matter of if we get new comparable events – but when, and how much.”


But Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group expressed caution, saying that ongoing efforts to deescalate tensions would not be halted. He said that if not perpetrated by the Saudis, the attack could have been carried out by Israel seeking to disrupt Iran’s oil exports, the country’s key source of income, or from a terrorist group. But he said both Tehran and Riyadh have shown interest in calming the situation. “For now, the attack will likely not derail efforts to ease tensions in the region and it does not materially impact the possibility for an escalation between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” he said.


Yesterday, Saudi Arabia said it was ready to help the Iranian tanker, but the ship turned off its tracking system. “An email from the captain of the Iranian tanker Sabiti was received saying the front of the vessel had been broken, resulting in an oil spill,” the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said quoting the border guard. “After analyzing the information by the coordination center with the aim to provide any necessary assistance… (the ship) shut off its tracking system without responding to the center’s calls,” it said.


Saudi Arabia, it said, was committed to the security and safety of navigation and international maritime laws. In early May another Iranian vessel, the “Happiness 1” broke down at about the same location off the port of Jeddah and was repaired in Saudi Arabia, where it was held until its release on July 21.


Yesterday Iran vowed not to let the attack against the Sabiti go unanswered. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said clues had been uncovered as to who was behind what he called a “missile attack” on tanker, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported. “Maritime piracy and wickedness in international waterways… will not be left unanswered,” he said, quoted by ISNA.


Iran is prepared to hold talks with regional rival Saudi Arabia, with or without the help of a mediator, the Iranian foreign ministry said yesterday, ahead of a visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Asked about reports that Khan, due to arrive in Iran at the weekend, may try to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said: “I am not aware of any mediation,” according to state broadcaster IRIB.


“Iran has announced that, with or without a mediator, it is always ready to hold talk with its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, to get rid of any misunderstandings,” Mousavi added. Iran’s foreign minister signaled last week that his country would be willing to discuss regional issues with Saudi Arabia, but that Riyadh had to stop “killing people”. Saudi Arabia, which is locked in several proxy wars in the region with Iran, has blamed Tehran for attacks on Saudi oil plants on Sept 14, a charge Iran denies. The kingdom has said it prefers a political solution to a military one. – Agencies