Iran rejects US accusation as global economy braces itself for oil price spike

Thick smoke rising from Aramco's Abqaiq oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia, last Saturday, in a satellite image from Planet Labs. The attack, as well as one on Khurais, the kingdom's second-biggest oil field, was claimed by Iran-backed Houthi re
Thick smoke rising from Aramco's Abqaiq oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia, last Saturday, in a satellite image from Planet Labs. The attack, as well as one on Khurais, the kingdom's second-biggest oil field, was claimed by Iran-backed Houthi rebels fighting a Saudi-led, United States-backed coalition in Yemen's civil war. The attacks have taken an estimated 5.7 million barrels of oil - 5 per cent of global oil supply - off the market, sparking fears of the impact of a prolonged spike in oil prices. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Thick smoke rising from Aramco's Abqaiq oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia, last Saturday, in a satellite image from Planet Labs. The attack, as well as one on Khurais, the kingdom's second-biggest oil field, was claimed by Iran-backed Houthi re
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, seen here in a file photo taken in May, has blamed last Saturday's attacks on a Saudi oil field and oil plant on Iran, but there was some scepticism in Washington over his claim, especially because it came so soon after the attacks. PHOTO: DPA

Iran has hit back at accusations from the United States that it had struck an oil refinery and oil field in Saudi Arabia, as worry mounts that a prolonged spike in oil prices could tip the global economy into recession.

Pre-dawn drone attacks last Saturday on Saudi state oil company Aramco's refinery in Abqaiq, the world's biggest crude processing facility, and west of Abqaiq in Khurais, the kingdom's second-biggest oil field, have taken an estimated 5.7 million barrels of oil - 5 per cent of global oil supply - off the market.

The attacks were claimed by Iran-backed Houthi rebels fighting a Saudi-led, US-backed coalition in Yemen's civil war.

But last Saturday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: "Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world's energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen."

He added: "The United States will work with our partners and allies to ensure that energy markets remain well supplied and Iran is held accountable for its aggression."

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded, also via Twitter, to say the US and its clients are stuck in Yemen because of the "illusion that weapon superiority will lead to military victory", he said.

"Blaming Iran won't end disaster," he added.

Mr Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the Aerospace Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, was quoted by the semi-official Tasnim news agency in Iran as saying Iran was ready for "full-fledged" war and that US military assets were within range.

Though Iran has been arming and training the Houthi, there was some scepticism in Washington over Mr Pompeo's claim, especially because it came so soon after the attacks.

 
 
 
 

"It takes time to piece these things together unless there is a smoking gun, which there rarely is," tweeted Mr Ilan Goldenberg, Middle East security director at the Centre for a New American Security. "So let's see some evidence," he added.

Democratic Party Senator from Connecticut Chris Murphy said Mr Pompeo's accusation was an "irresponsible simplification".

"The Saudis attack the Houthis and the Houthis attack back. Iran is backing the Houthis and has been a bad actor, but it's just not as simple as Houthis=Iran."

Oil prices are set to spike today when markets open in Asia.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin tweeted: "This is serious. It will - not could - affect us deeply; to put it bluntly, an oil shortage or steep rise in oil price will rock the Philippine boat and tip it over."

Mr Gary Grappo, a former US ambassador to Oman who has also served in Saudi Arabia, told CNN: "The only question now is how long will these two facilities stay offline. The longer they are offline, the greater the pressure that the global economy will be facing."

Aramco, which is planning a massive initial public offering, has said it can release oil from strategic storage facilities.

But some experts are sceptical.

"There are places which do not have the logistics capability," Dr Paul Sullivan, a Middle East and energy expert who lectures at the National Defence University, told The Straits Times.

"Abqaiq has been called the Achilles heel of the world oil market and the world economy," Dr Sullivan said. "It will be miraculous if the Saudis get this back online in a few days. There were multiple targets. It's anyone's guess what the price of oil is going to be when the market opens."

"But there's going to be a significant psychological premium on the price of oil, and massive volatility," he said.

The United Nations General Assembly in New York this week will be the first opportunity to address the crisis diplomatically.

Last week, Mr Pompeo said US President Donald Trump was ready to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York without preconditions. That came as Iran welcomed the sacking of Mr Trump's national security adviser John Bolton, who was notoriously hawkish on Iran.

But the strike on the oil facilities, and Mr Pompeo's accusation, may throw a spanner in the diplomatic works. Yesterday, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News the attacks did not help prospects but that she would "allow the President to announce a meeting or a non-meeting".

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2019, with the headline 'Iran rejects US accusation as global economy braces itself for oil price spike'. Print Edition | Subscribe