President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he has ordered a major increase in sanctions on Iran in the latest move of the United States to pressure Tehran, which US officials say likely carried out a crippling weekend attack on Saudi oil facilities, allegations Iran denies.
Trump gave no explanation in a brief tweet announcing the order, but the initiative follows repeated US assertions that Iran was behind Saturday’s attack on the kingdom, a close US ally.
“I have just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase sanctions on the country of Iran!” he tweeted.
Iran, however, again denied involvement in Saturday’s raids, which hit the world’s biggest crude processing facility and initially knocked out half of the Saudi production.
“They want to impose maximum … pressure on Iran through slander,” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said.
“We don’t want conflict in the region … Who started the conflict?” he added, blaming Washington and its Gulf allies for the war in Yemen.
At a news conference later on Wednesday, Saudi officials showed debris from the alleged weapons used during the attacks, saying there was “undeniable” evidence of Iranian aggression.
A defence ministry spokesman said there was no way the strikes could have been launched from Yemen.
“The attack was launched from the north and unquestionably sponsored by Iran,” Saudi Colonel Turki al-Malki said. “We are working to know the exact launch point.”
Al-Malki didn’t directly blame Iran for the attack when asked by journalists. He said once “the culprits” were definitively identified they would “be held accountable”.
Saudi Arabia and the US have stressed the need for caution in their response to the attacks.
Trump has said he does not want war and is coordinating with Gulf and European states.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) said the hit on the world’s biggest crude exporter was a “real test of the global will” to confront subversion of the international order.
His envoy to London, Prince Khalid bin Bander, told the BBC the attack was “almost certainly” Iranian-backed, however, “We’re trying not to react too quickly because the last thing we need is more conflict in the region.”
Pompeo in the Gulf
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was expected to meet MBS in Jeddah on Wednesday to discuss the crisis before heading to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
United Nations officials monitoring sanctions on Iran and Yemen were also heading to Saudi Arabia to investigate.
France, which is trying to salvage an international nuclear deal with Iran that Washington quit last year, said it wanted to establish the facts before reacting.
US media, citing unnamed US officials, reported on Tuesday that evidence shows Saturday’s attacks originated in southwestern Iran.
Three officials said they involved cruise missiles and drones, indicating a higher degree of complexity and sophistication than initially thought.
The officials did not provide evidence or explain what US intelligence they were using for evaluating the attack, which cut five percent of global production.
US officials have not made the evidence public.
Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday the 5.7 million barrels per day output loss would be fully restored by the end of the month.
Oil prices fell after the Saudi reassurances, having surged more than 20 percent at one point on Monday – the biggest intra-day jump since the 1990-91 Gulf War.
Saudi Arabia’s finance minister told Reuters news agency on Wednesday the attack had no effect on revenues and Aramco was continuing to supply markets without interruption.
US efforts to bring about a UN Security Council response look unlikely to succeed as Russia and China have veto powers and are expected to shield Iran.
The new violence has led to fears that further action on any side could rapidly escalate a confrontation that has been raging just below the surface in the wider region in recent months.
Last month, Trump called off a military attack on Iran at the last minute after Tehran downed an unmanned US military drone. Iran maintains the drone was in Iranian airspace. The US says it was in international territory.
Those tensions have been boiling ever since Trump pulled the US out of Iran’s 2015 agreement with world powers that curtailed Iranian nuclear activities and the US reimposed sanctions that sent Iran’s economy into freefall.
Iran has ruled out talks with Washington unless it returns to the pact.
Trump said he is not looking to meet Rouhani during a UN event in New York this month. Rouhani and his foreign minister may not attend the UN General Assembly at all unless US visas are issued in the coming hours, state media reported on Wednesday.
Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst Marwan Bishara said earlier this week that Saturday’s attacks were a “game-changer” in US-Iran relations.
“The US cannot allow this incident to set a precedent, where more incidents like this happen in the future,” he said from London.
“As far as the US is concerned, the responsibility lies with Tehran, and they are going to have to do something – whether its war or serious diplomacy – it remains to be seen.”