White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway said Sunday that US President Donald Trump could still meet with his Iranian counterpart on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly later this month, despite attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities over the weekend that Washington blamed on Iran.
Speculation has mounted in recent weeks that Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani could hold talks during the annual summit of world leaders, possibly in exchange for the lifting of some economic sanctions the American leader imposed on Tehran after unilaterally withdrawing from an atomic accord over a year ago.
“I’ll allow the president to announce a meeting or a non-meeting,” Conway told “Fox News Sunday” during an interview. “The president will always consider his options.”
Conway repeated US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s earlier accusation that Iran was behind a drone attack, claimed by Houthi rebels, on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil processing facility that halved the kingdom’s production.
“You’re not helping your case much,” by attacking civilian areas and critical infrastructure, Conway said, adding that whether or not a Trump-Rouhani meeting happens, Washington will continue its “maximum pressure campaign” on Iran. The policy is aimed at pressing Tehran into renegotiating the terms of the 2015 accord with world powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Asked about the possibility of a retaliatory attack against Iranian oil assets, as suggested by Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican close to the US president, Conway said the Trump administration is keeping “many options on the table.”
“Iran will not stop their misbehavior until the consequences become more real, like attacking their refineries, which will break the regime’s back,” Graham wrote on Twitter in the hours after the attack.
The attack Saturday on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq plant and its Khurais oil field led to the interruption of an estimated 5.7 million barrels of the kingdom’s crude oil production per day, equivalent to over five percent of the world’s daily supply. It remains unclear how King Salman and his assertive son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will respond to an attack targeting what analysts describe as the heart of the Saudi oil industry.
The US, Western nations, their Gulf Arab allies and UN experts say Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons and drones — a charge that Tehran denies. A Saudi-led coalition is battling against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Late Saturday, Pompeo directly blamed Iran for the Saudi attack on Twitter, without offering evidence to support his claim.
“Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” Pompeo wrote. “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi on Sunday dismissed Pompeo’s remarks as “blind and futile comments.”
“The Americans adopted the ‘maximum pressure’ policy against Iran, which, due to its failure, is leaning towards ‘maximum lies,'” Mousavi said in a statement.
Actions on any side could break into the open a twilight war that has been raging just below the surface of the wider Persian Gulf over the last months. Already, there have been mysterious attacks on oil tankers that America blames on Tehran, at least one suspected Israeli strike on Shiite forces in Iraq, and Iran shooting down a US military surveillance drone.
A commander in Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard reiterated its forces could strike US military bases across the Mideast with its arsenal of ballistic missiles.
“Because of the tension and sensitive situation, our region is like a powder keg,” warned Guard Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh. “When these contacts come too close, when forces come into contact with one another, it is possible a conflict happens because of a misunderstanding.”
Hajizadeh, the Guard brigadier general who leads its aerospace program, gave an interview published across Iranian media that discussed Iran’s downing of the US drone in July. He said Guard forces were ready for a counterattack if America responded, naming the Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and Al-Dhafra Air Base near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates as immediate targets, as well as Navy ships in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.
“Wherever they are, it only takes one spark and we hit their vessels, their air bases, their troops,” he said in a video published online Sunday with English subtitles.
US officials previously alleged at least one recent drone attack on Saudi Arabia came from Iraq, where Iran backs Shiite militias. Those militias in recent weeks have been targeted themselves by mysterious airstrikes, with at least one believed to have been carried out by Israel.
Houthi leader Muhammad al-Bukhaiti reiterated his group’s claim of responsibility Sunday, telling The Associated Press it exploited “vulnerabilities” in Saudi air defenses to strike the targets. He did not elaborate.
The Trump administration wants Iran to agree to stricter terms to the nuclear agreement aimed at preventing Iran from producing nuclear weapons, and also to limit its ballistic missile program. In response to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and the imposition of sanctions, Iran has reduced some of its own commitments to the nuclear deal, which it also signed at the time with Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany.