US-Iran tensions rise after Saudi claims drone attack on oil facilities

Saudi Arabia said armed drones struck two of its oil pumping
stations on Tuesday, two days after the sabotage of oil tankers near the United
Arab Emirates, and the US military said it was braced for “possibly
imminent threats to US forces in Iraq” from Iran-backed forces.

The attacks took place against a backdrop of US-Iranian
tension following Washington’s decision this month to try to cut Iran’s oil
exports to zero and to beef up its military presence in the Gulf in response to
what it said were Iranian threats.

Tuesday’s attacks on the pumping stations more than 200
miles (320 km) west of Riyadh and Sunday’s on four tankers off Fujairah emirate
have raised concerns that the United States and Iran might be inching toward
military conflict.

However, US President Donald Trump denied a New York Times
report that US officials were discussing a military plan to send up to 120,000
troops to the Middle East to counter any attack or nuclear weapons acceleration
by Iran.

“It’s fake news, OK? Now, would I do that? Absolutely.
But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for
that. And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than
that,” Trump told reporters.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said there
would not be war with the United States despite mounting tensions over Iranian
nuclear capabilities, its missile program and its support for proxies in Yemen,
Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

“There won’t be any war. The Iranian nation has chosen
the path of resistance,” he said in comments carried by Iran’s state TV.
He repeated that Tehran would not negotiate with Washington over Iran’s 2015
nuclear deal with major powers.

The US military cited possible imminent threats to its
troops in Iraq and said they were now on high alert. The US was responding to
comments from a British deputy commander of the US-led coalition fighting
Islamic State remnants in Iraq and Syria who said there had been no increase in
the threat from Iran-backed militia.

The comments “run counter to the identified credible
threats available to intelligence from US and allies regarding Iranian backed
forces in the region,” said Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman at the US
military’s Central Command.

Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal
a year ago and has sharply increased economic sanctions on Iran.

Under the accord negotiated by Trump’s predecessor Barack
Obama, Iran agreed to curb its uranium enrichment capacity, a potential pathway
to a nuclear bomb, in return for sanctions relief.

The Trump administration’s sanctions are designed to choke
off Iran’s oil exports in an effort to force Iran to accept more stringent
limits on its nuclear and missile programs as well as to rein in its support
for proxy forces in the region.

US national security agencies believe proxies sympathetic to
or working for Iran may have sabotaged the tankers near the UAE rather than
Iranian forces themselves, a US official familiar with the latest US
assessments said.

The official said possible perpetrators might include Houthi
rebels in Yemen and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias based in Iraq, but Washington
had no hard evidence. On Monday, a US official said Iran was a leading
candidate for the tanker sabotage but the United States did not have conclusive
proof.

Iran rejects the allegation of Iranian involvement and
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that “extremist
individuals” in the US government were pursuing dangerous policies. A
senior European diplomat voiced skepticism that Trump’s “maximum
pressure” strategy would force Iran to capitulate.

“Iran is not falling to its knees,” said the
diplomat on condition of anonymity, saying Iran could resume its nuclear work
and leave Washington with no option but military action.

“Does Trump want to go to war with Iran especially
during an election campaign year?” he asked.

Democratic Party candidates are already campaigning ahead of
the November 2020 US election aiming to stop Republican Trump being re-elected.

-GK

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