RIYADH: Drone attacks claimed by Iran-aligned Yemen rebels shut down one of Saudi Arabia’s major oil pipelines Tuesday, further ratcheting up Gulf tensions after the mysterious sabotage of several tankers.
Washington and Tehran played down tensions after trading barbs as the Americans sent an aircraft carrier group and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the region to counter alleged threats from Saudi arch-rival Iran.
“We fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Sochi.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “this face-off is not military because there is not going to be any war” with the United States.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude exporter and OPEC kingpin, said two pumping stations had been targeted early Tuesday.
They lie on the East West Pipeline, able to pump five million barrels of oil a day from oil-rich Eastern Province to a Red Sea port.
The announcement came hours after Yemen’s Houthi rebels said they had targeted vital installations in Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition against them.
Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said Saudi Aramco had “temporarily shut down” the pipeline to “evaluate its condition” but added that oil production and exports had not been interrupted.
He said the incident was an “act of terrorism… that not only targets the kingdom but also the security of oil supplies to the world and the global economy”.
Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam tweeted that the attacks were “a response to the aggressors continuing to commit genocide” against Yemenis. In a statement, the Houthis warned of other “unique operations… if the aggressors continue with their crimes and blockade”.
“We are capable of executing unique operations on a bigger and wider scale in the hearts of the enemy countries.”
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in the Yemen war in March 2015 to bolster the internationally recognised government’s efforts against the Houthis.
The 1,200-kilometre (750-mile) pipeline reportedly hit Tuesday serves as an alternative for Saudi crude exports if the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf were to be closed.
Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the strait in case of a military confrontation with the US.
The reported pipeline attacks came after the UAE said four ships were damaged in “sabotage attacks” off the emirate of Fujairah, on the mouth of the Hormuz, on Sunday.
Washington and its Gulf allies did not immediately blame Riyadh’s regional arch-rival Tehran for the sabotage, but US President Donald Trump has warned Iran against doing anything to harm US interests.
The attacks came after the United States deployed the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group, an amphibious assault vessel, a Patriot missile battery and B-52 bombers, triggering fears of a possible military confrontation.
Trump later denied a New York Times report that he was considering sending 120,000 troops to counter Iran.
“Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that,” Trump said. “Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
The international coalition in Iraq and Syria said its troops were not feeling any intensified threat from Iran in the region.
“There has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” said Major General Chris Ghika, a British spokesman for the force.
A UAE government official said the Saudi oil tankers Al-Marzoqah and Amjad were attacked off the emirate of Fujairah along with the Norwegian tanker Andrea Victory and an Emirati ship, the A Michel.
No casualties were reported and none of the vessels sank.
An Emirati official said three Western countries – the US, France and Norway – would be part of an investigation into the ship attacks along with the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh said its two tankers suffered “significant damage” but there was no oil spill.
The Andrea Victory’s managers, Thome Group, said the ship’s hull had been pierced “after being struck by an unknown object on the waterline”. Asked whether the US believed Iran played a role in the attacks, Washington’s Iran envoy Brian Hook declined to comment, saying only that US authorities would help the investigation at the request of the UAE.
The United Nations urged all sides to “exercise restraint for the sake of regional peace”.
Oil prices initially spiked in response to news of the attacks, but were largely flat in trading on Tuesday.
Fujairah port is the only Emirati terminal located on the Arabian Sea coast, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz through which most Gulf oil exports pass.
Iran and the US have engaged in a war of words in recent weeks since Tehran began to roll back commitments set out in a landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Trump withdrew the United States from the deal last year and has unilaterally reimposed tough sanctions on Iran.