Saudi Arabia ups ante in war of words with Iran

Saudi Arabia ups ante in war of words with Iran

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Saudi Arabia would “not hesitate” to defend its interests as Riyadh joined the US in blaming Iran for last week’s attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf.

Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto leader, said Saudi Arabia did not want a conflict in the region, but his comments were indicative of rising tensions in the oil-rich Gulf.

They came days after two tankers — one loaded with methanol from Saudi Arabia — were damaged, forcing their crews to evacuate. Last month, four tankers, including two Saudi vessels, were also struck by “sabotage attacks” in the same coastal waters of the United Arab Emirates.

The incidents have raised concerns about the vulnerability of energy supplies around the vital shipping route through the Strait of Hormuz.

“The kingdom doesn’t want a war in the region, but we will not hesitate to deal with any threat to our people, sovereignty and vital interests,” Prince Mohammed said in an interview with the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

“The choice before Iran is clear. Does it want to be a normal country that has a constructive role in the international community, or remain a rogue state?,” he continued. “We hope that the Iranian regime would choose to become a normal country and cease its aggressive approach.”

Khalid al-Falih, Saudi energy minister, said on Saturday that there “must be a rapid and decisive response to the threat of energy supplies”. His comments were echoed by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE’s foreign minister, who on Saturday called on friendly nations to confront “fascist regimes that seek to destroy the region”.

In addition to the tanker incidents, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are aligned to Iran, last month claimed responsibility for drone attacks on oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia and fired a missile at a Saudi airport last week, injuring more than 20 people.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi lead an Arab coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen and are the staunchest backers of US president Donald Trump’s administration in its efforts to push back against Iran’s influence.

Mr Trump said on Friday that last week’s attacks had Iran “written all over it”. Washington released a grainy video purporting to show Iranian forces alongside one of the damaged tankers hours after the attacks removing a mine from the vessel. It has provided no other evidence that Iran was behind the attacks.

Tehran has rejected the allegations and said the timing of the incident, which coincided with a meeting between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic republic’s supreme leader, and Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, in Tehran was highly suspicious. Mr Abe was seeking to de-escalate tensions and potentially mediate.

Prince Mohammed said Iran did not respect Mr Abe and “practically responded to his efforts by attacking two oil tankers, one of them Japanese”.

Ali Larijani, Iran’s parliamentary speaker, countered on Sunday that “the suspicious actions against the oil tankers” appeared to be a “complementary measure” to the crippling sanctions the US had imposed on the Islamic republic.

Iran accuses Mr Trump of waging an “economic war” against the republic and says the US is pushing for regime change. In recent weeks, Tehran has been proposing regional dialogue to ease tensions, but has ruled out talks with Washington.

The US and Iran have been at loggerheads since Mr Trump last year unilaterally withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear accord Tehran signed with world powers. He has imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran that have severely affected Iran’s ability to export oil and plunged the republic into a deep recession.

Last month, Washington deployed an aircraft carrier strike group together with bombers and additional troops to the region as US officials cited unspecified “escalatory” activity by Iran.

Both sides say they want to avoid a war, but diplomats fear a miscalculation.

Iran last month said it would no longer comply with some elements of the nuclear accord unless European signatories — which continue to support the nuclear deal — took concrete steps to counter the impact of the US sanctions in 60 days.

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, warned on Saturday that Tehran would take further actions if it did not receive a “proper response” from other signatories of the accord, which includes China and Russia. Iran said it would announce further steps at its Arak reactor on Monday, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency.

Mr Rouhani said last month that if Tehran’s demands were not met, it would halt the modernisation of its Arak plant, a process that was supposed to reduce the amount of plutonium it produces.

António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, on Friday called for an independent investigation into the tanker attacks.

“It’s very important to know the truth and it’s very important that responsibilities are clarified,” he said. “Obviously, that can only be done if there is an independent entity that verifies those facts.”



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