The Associated Press and Bloomberg News

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A weekend drone attack on Saudi Arabia that cut into global energy supplies and halved the kingdom’s oil production threatened Sunday to fuel a regional crisis, as the U.S. released new evidence to back up its allegation that Iran was responsible for the assault amid heightened tensions over Tehran’s collapsing nuclear deal.

President Donald Trump said the U.S. had reason to believe it knew who was behind the attack — his secretary of state had blamed Iran the previous day — and assured his Twitter followers that “we are … locked and loaded” depending on verification and were waiting to hear from the Saudis as to who they believe was behind the attack and “under what terms we would proceed!”

The tweets followed a National Security Council meeting at the White House that included Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Pompeo directly blamed Iran for the Saudi attack on Twitter late Saturday, and officials worked to provide evidence for his claim the following day.

“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.”

A U.S. official said all options, including a military response, were on the table, but said no decisions had been made Sunday. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations.

Hours earlier, senior U.S. officials said satellite imagery and other intelligence showed the strike was inconsistent with one launched from Yemen, where Iranian-backed Houthi rebels had claimed responsibility.

Iran, meanwhile, called the U.S. claims “maximum lies,” while a commander in its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard reiterated its forces could strike U.S. military bases across the Mideast with their arsenal of ballistic missiles.

The evidence

The U.S. government produced satellite photos showing what officials said were at least 19 points of impact at two Saudi energy facilities, including damage at the heart of the kingdom’s crucial oil processing plant at Abqaiq. Officials said the photos show impacts consistent with the attack coming from the direction of Iran or Iraq, rather than from Yemen to the south.

Iraq denied Sunday that its territory was used for an attack on the Kingdom and U.S. officials said a strike from there would be a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.

The U.S. officials said additional devices, which apparently didn’t reach their targets, were recovered northwest of the facilities and are being jointly analyzed by Saudi and American intelligence. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, did not address whether the drone could have been fired from Yemen, then taken a round-about path, but did not explicitly rule it out.

The U.S., Western nations, their Gulf Arab allies and U.N. experts say Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons and drones — a charge that Tehran denies.

U.S. 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.

Saudi oil production

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 more than 5% of the world’s daily supply. It remained unclear how King Salman and his assertive son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will respond to an attack targeting the heart of the Saudi oil industry.

Crude oil futures shot up 9.5% to $60 as trading opened Sunday evening in New York, a dramatic increase. A spike in oil prices could have negative effects for the global economy.

Saudi Arabia has promised to fill in the cut in production with its reserves, but has not said how long it will take to repair the damage. The Wall Street Journal cited Saudi officials as saying a third of output would be restored on Monday, but a return to full production may take weeks.

Trump said he had approved the release of U.S. strategic petroleum reserves “if needed” to stabilize energy markets. The president said the final amount of the release, if any, would be “sufficient to keep the markets well-supplied.”

Region ‘like a powder keg’

The attacks and recriminations are increasing already heightened fears of an escalation in the region, after a prominent U.S. senator suggested striking Iranian oil refineries in response to the assault, and Iran warned of the potential of more violence.

“Because of the tension and sensitive situation, our region is like a powder keg,” said Iranian 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.”

Actions on any side could break into the open a twilight war that’s been raging just below the surface of the wider Persian Gulf in recent 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 U.S. military surveillance drone.

Iran, meanwhile, kept up its own threats.

Hajizadeh, who leads Iran’s aerospace program, said in an interview published across Iranian media Sunday that Revolutionary Guard forces were ready for a counterattack if America responded, naming bases in Qatar and Abu Dhabi, as well as U.S. 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 with English subtitles.

Ways forward for the U.S.

It wasn’t just Iran making threats. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is close to Trump, suggested retaliatory strikes targeting Iran. “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.

The challenge the president and his advisers face is balancing a tough response to what it says is a clear act of Iranian aggression against concern it is rushing headlong into a conflict that could spiral out of control. Analysts also warn doing nothing could send a message to Iran or its proxy militias across the Middle East that they can strike their enemies with impunity.

“There’s no great response here,” said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The question becomes how does the U.S. navigate between not allowing this precedent to stand on one hand, and avoiding a punitive escalation or one designed to deter future attacks without an escalation. And the answer is there is no answer.”

A direct U.S. military response may be unlikely, according to the experts who said they doubt Trump will be willing to use force against Tehran or risk escalating violence in the Middle East ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

The administration’s so-called “maximum pressure” stance against Iran is focused on imposing sanctions and isolating the country over its nuclear ambitions and malign activities in the region. That approach has come under renewed scrutiny at a time the president’s foreign policy team is in flux, after Trump’s recent firing of hawkish national security adviser John Bolton.

Paul Pillar, a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officer, said the one “policy option left is de-escalation — of the Saudi air war against Yemen, and of the Trump administration’s economic war against Iran.”

Pillar, who’s now a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University in Washington, said “further attempts to escalate on either of those war fronts offers no reason to believe that they would be any more successful than the wars have been up to this point.”

One Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said Trump sees what he wants to see in world events, so if he wants to push for a meeting with Iran’s president, Iranian Rouhani, the strikes won’t necessarily deter him. Trump has repeatedly brushed aside short-range missile tests by North Korea as he seeks to broker a historic nuclear pact with leader Kim Jong Un.

White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway said on “Fox News Sunday” the administration will continue its “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran, but she added that “the president will always consider his options,” including a meeting with Rouhani.

Could a Rouhani meeting still happen?

With the U.N. General Assembly taking place in a little over a week, there had been speculation of a potential meeting between Trump and Hassan Rouhani on the summit’s sidelines, possibly in exchange for the lifting of some economic sanctions the American leader imposed on Tehran after unilaterally withdrawing from the nuclear accord over a year ago.

But Trump seemed to reject that idea Sunday night, tweeting: “The Fake News is saying that I am willing to meet with Iran, ‘No Conditions.’ That is an incorrect statement (as usual!).” In fact, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters last week “the president has said that he is prepared to meet with no conditions.”

If Iran had a hand in Saturday’s attack, it could be to bolster their position ahead of any talks, analysts say.

“The main point for Iran, in my opinion, is not necessarily to derail a meeting between Trump and Rouhani but to increase its leverage ahead of it,” said Michael Horowitz, the head of intelligence at the Bahrain-based risk management firm Le Beck International. “By carrying out such a major attack, Iran wants to send the message that the only way to decrease tensions is to comply with its demands regarding sanctions relief.”

However, he warned there could be a danger of Iran “overplaying” its hand.

“There will be no political benefit for Trump in a meeting with Rouhani if this meeting sends the message that the U.S. simply surrendered to Iranian demands,” he said. Trump risks criticism from many of his Republican allies if he chooses to meet with Iran’s leader barely a week after accusing the country of being responsible for a strike that caused a significant disruption to the world’s oil markets.

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