Iran: Military strike by US, Saudi will trigger ‘all out war’

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State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus. MARK WILSON/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP

Iran's foreign minister has said a military strike on Iran would trigger “all-out war”, as the US and its Gulf allies accuse the country of being behind attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

Asked about the consequence of “an American or Saudi military strike on Iran” in an interview with CNN aired on Thursday, Mohammad Javad Zarif responded: “An all-out war.”

“We don’t want war; we don’t want to engage in a military confrontation,” he said, warning it would lead to “a lot of casualties”. “But we won’t blink to defend our territory,” he added.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels have claimed responsibility for Saturday’s strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure, but the US says it has concluded the attack involved cruise missiles from Iran and amounts to “an act of war”.

Saudi Arabia, which has been bogged down in a five-year war in neighbouring Yemen, has said Iran “unquestionably sponsored” the attacks and the weapons used in them were Iranian-made, but has not directly blamed its regional rival.

In response, Zarif said: “They’re making that up. Now they want to pin the blame on Iran to achieve something, and that is why I’m saying this is agitation for war. Because it’s based on lies . . . it’s based on deception,” he said.

The attacks on Saudi energy giant Aramco’s Abqaiq processing plant and Khurais oilfield halved the kingdom’s oil output. Iran has repeatedly denied the US and Saudi accusations that it arms the Huthis.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo headed to the UAE on Thursday for further talks with Gulf allies about responding to the major attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure that he has denounced as an “act of war” by Iran.

The hardening of the US position raises the risk of a dangerous escalation in the tinderbox region after weekend strikes on the heart of the Saudi oil industry.

Pompeo flew to Abu Dhabi from the Saudi city of Jeddah, where he met late on Wednesday with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler who has said the assault poses a “real test” of global will.

The two sides “agreed that the Iranian regime must be held accountable for its continued aggressive, reckless and threatening behaviour,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said after their talks.

The “unacceptable and unprecedented attack . . . not only threatened Saudi Arabian national security but also endangered the lives of all the American citizens living and working in Saudi Arabia,” she added.

Pompeo denounced the unprecedented strikes as an Iranian “act of war”, as Riyadh on Wednesday unveiled new evidence that it said showed the assault was “unquestionably” sponsored by Tehran.

Saudi officials displayed what they said were fragments of 25 drones and cruise missiles fired on Saturday at two facilities in the country’s east, engulfing them in flames.

“The attack was launched from the north and unquestionably sponsored by Iran,” defence ministry spokesman Turki al-Maliki said, but would not be drawn on whether Saudi officials believed Iran would ultimately be found to be the culprit.

US military planners weighing retaliation have reportedly forwarded a list of Iranian targets including the Abadan oil refinery, one of the world’s largest, or Khark Island, the country’s biggest oil export facility, the New York Times reported.

Other potential targets include missile launch sites and other assets of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and bases in the southwest, where unusual activity suggests they had a role in the strikes.

“Any strikes against Iran would almost certainly be carried out by volleys of cruise missiles from Navy vessels. Strike aircraft would be aloft to carry out attacks if Iranian retaliated against the first wave,” the Times said.

Cinzia Bianco, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the incident could “trigger an out-of-control chain of escalator events”.

“Inside Saudi Arabia, there is uncertainty over the most appropriate course of action. However, the dominant thinking there points to the US targeting critical infrastructure in Iran as to minimise or exclude any human cost,” she said.

Late on Wednesday, CBS News cited an unnamed US official as saying that Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved the attack, on condition that it be carried out in a way to deny Iranian involvement.

US officials quoted said the most damning evidence against Iran was unreleased satellite photos showing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard making preparations for the attack at its Ahvaz airbase.

However, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Major General Hossein Salami, said on Thursday that the US was “so powerful that they are forced to falsely accuse us to be behind any incident”.