Iran warns of 'all-out war' if Saudis, U.S. strike over oil industry attack
'We won't blink to defend our territory,' Iran's foreign minister says
Iran warned U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday against being dragged into all-out war in the Middle East following an attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities that Washington and the Saudi kingdom blame on Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described the weekend strike that initially halved Saudi oil output as an act of war, and has been discussing possible retaliation with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies.
Trump on Wednesday struck a cautious note, saying there were many options short of war with Iran, which denies involvement in Saturday's strikes. He ordered more sanctions on Tehran.
Iran's foreign minister told CNN the Islamic Republic "won't blink" if it has to defend itself against any U.S. or Saudi military strike, which he said would lead to "all-out war."
"I am making a very serious statement that we don't want war; we don't want to engage in a military confrontation ... But we won't blink to defend our territory," Mohammad Javad Zarif said.
Zarif earlier accused Pompeo of being part of a "B-team" that Tehran says includes Saudi Arabia's crown prince and is trying to dupe Trump into opting for war.
Met with <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Saudi?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Saudi</a> Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman today to discuss the unprecedented attacks against Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. The U.S. stands with <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SaudiArabia?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SaudiArabia</a> and supports its right to defend itself. The Iranian regime’s threatening behavior will not be tolerated.—@SecPompeo
Pompeo said on Wednesday the attack was "of a scale we've just not seen before."
"The Saudis were the nation that were attacked. It was on their soil. It was an act of war against them directly," he told reporters before meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Possible U.S. response
The Pentagon said on Thursday the U.S. military is working with Saudi Arabia to find ways to provide more protection for the northern part of the country in the wake of the attack, and spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said the department is providing Trump with military options for any U.S. response. Meanwhile, a U.S. official familiar with the discussions — who spoke on condition of anonymity — told The Associated Press the president will be presented with a list of potential airstrike targets inside Iran, among other possible responses. He will also be warned that military action against the Islamic Republic could escalate into war, according to the source.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized to a small number of journalists traveling with him Monday that the question of whether the U.S. responds is a "political judgment" and not for the military.
"It is my job to provide military options to the president should he decide to respond with military force," Dunford said.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat, said in an interview Thursday that if Trump "chooses an option that involves a significant military strike on Iran that, given the current climate between the U.S. and Iran, there is a possibility that it could escalate into a medium to large-scale war, I believe the president should come to Congress."
Slotkin, a former top Middle East policy adviser for the Pentagon, said she hopes Trump considers a broad range of options, including the most basic choice, which would be to place more forces and defensive military equipment in and around Saudi Arabia to help increase security.
A forensic team from U.S. Central Command is poring over evidence from cruise missile and drone debris, but the Pentagon said the assessment is not finished. Officials are trying to determine if they can get navigational information from the debris that could provide hard evidence that the strikes came from Iran.
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Thursday that the U.S. has a high level of confidence that officials will be able to accurately determine exactly who launched the attacks last weekend.
The Saudi kingdom, which described the assault as a "test of global will," on Wednesday displayed remnants of the 25 Iranian drones and missiles it said were used in the strike as undeniable evidence of Iranian aggression.
Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi movement, which is battling a Saudi-led military coalition, claimed responsibility for the assault on two Saudi oil plants, including the world's largest processing facility. U.S. and Saudi officials rejected the claim, saying the attack had not come from the south.
Later Thursday evening, the Saudi-led coalition launched a military operation north of Yemen's port city of Hodeidah against what it described as "legitimate military targets," after calling on civilians to stay away from the sites. The coalition said it had destroyed four sites used in assembling remote-controlled boats and sea mines to help protect the freedom of maritime navigation.
UN meeting in focus
Proof of Iranian responsibility and evidence that the attack was launched from Iranian territory could pressure Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia and Washington, which want to curb Iranian influence in the region, into a response. Trump has previously said he does not want war and is co-ordinating with Gulf and European states.
Pompeo said the attacks would be a major focus of next week's annual UN General Assembly meeting, and suggested Riyadh could make its case there.
Earlier Thursday, Zarif accused Pompeo of trying to "dodge a U.S. obligation" to issue visas for Iran's UN delegates, though later in the day, spokesperson Abbas Mousavi tweeted Zarif would in fact leave for New York on Friday to attend the assembly.
Tehran has said the U.S. accusations were part of Washington's "maximum pressure" policy on the Islamic Republic to force Iran to renegotiate a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which Trump exited last year, reimposing sanctions.
France, which is trying to salvage the deal, said the New York gathering presented a chance to de-escalate tensions.
"When missiles hit another country, it is an act of war, but we have to go back to the principle of de-escalation," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said. "There is an international investigation. Let's wait for its results."
The French army sent seven experts to Saudi Arabia to join the investigation. UN officials monitoring sanctions on Iran and Yemen are also helping probe the attack, which exposed gaps in Saudi air defences despite billions spent on Western military hardware.
U.S. efforts to bring about a UN Security Council response looked unlikely to succeed as Russia and China have veto powers and were expected to shield Iran.
Washington and its Gulf allies want Iran to stop supporting regional proxies, including in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as to put more limitations on its nuclear and missile programs.
The United Arab Emirates on Thursday followed its main Arab ally Saudi Arabia in announcing it was joining a global maritime security coalition that Washington has been trying to build since a series of explosions on oil tankers in Gulf waters in recent months that were also blamed on Tehran.
The state-run WAM news agency quoted Salem al-Zaabi of the Emirati Foreign Ministry as saying the UAE joined the coalition to "ensure global energy security and the continued flow of energy supplies to the global economy."
Australia, Bahrain and the United Kingdom also are taking part.
Pompeo tweeted his appreciation for the UAE and Saudi Arabia joining the coalition.
"Recent events underscore the importance of protecting global commerce and freedom of navigation."
Iraq's Foreign Ministry said on Thursday it would not join the international maritime mission, the Iraqi state news agency reported.
The ministry also rejected any participation by Israel in that coalition, and said security in the Gulf was the responsibility of Gulf states.
The U.S. formed the coalition after attacks on oil tankers that American officials blame on Iran, as well as Iran's seizure of tankers in the region. Iran denies being behind the tanker explosions, though they came after Tehran threatened to stop oil exports from the Persian Gulf.
With files from The Associated Press