By Tuqa Khalid and Aziz El Yaakoubi
DUBAI, Sept 19 (Reuters) – The United States said on Thursday it was building a coalition to deter Iranian threats following a weekend attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities.
Iran has warned U.S. President Donald Trump against being dragged into a war in the Middle East and said it would meet any offensive action with a crushing response.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Trump, who has ordered more sanctions on Iran, wants a peaceful solution to the crisis.
He was speaking after talks with Saudi and Emirati leaders over the strike that Washington and Riyadh have blamed on Tehran.
Iran denies involvement in the Sept. 14 attack that initially halved Saudi oil output and which Pompeo earlier called an “act of war” against the world’s largest oil exporter.
Pompeo appeared to soften his tone on Thursday after talks with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, which is Riyadh’s main Arab ally.
“We are here to build out a coalition aimed at achieving peace and a peaceful resolution. That’s my mission, that’s what President Trump certainly wants me to work to achieve and I hope that the Islamic Republic of Iran sees it that way,” Pompeo told reporters.
He did not provide details about the coalition. The United States has however been trying to create a global maritime security alliance since attacks on oil tankers in Gulf waters, which Washington also blamed on Iran.
UAE, Saudi Arabia, Britain and Bahrain have said they will participate. Iraq said it would not join, and most European countries have been reluctant to sign up for fear of stoking regional tensions.
Pompeo described his proposed coalition as “an act of diplomacy” while Iran‘s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, told CNN on Thursday that the Islamic Republic “won’t blink” if it has to defend itself against any U.S. or Saudi military strike, which he said would lead to “all-out war”.
Later on Friday, Zarif called Kuwait’s foreign minister Sheikh Sabah al Khalid Al Sabah where the two discussed measures to de-escalate tensions in the region, state news agency KUNA reported.
Zarif mocked Pompeo, saying he was part of a so-called “B-team”, along with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, which is trying to dupe Trump into opting for war.
Pompeo on Wednesday met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has called the assault on oil plants a “test of global will”.
Riyadh has displayed what it described as remnants of 25 Iranian drones and missiles used in the strike, saying it was evidence of Iranian aggression.
Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Adel al-Jubeir said on Thursday the attacks were an “extension of the Iranian regime’s hostile and outlawed behavior” and called on the international community to “shoulder its responsibilities and take a firm stance towards Iran‘s criminal behavior.”
“Complacency with the Iranian regime will only encourage it to commit more acts of terrorism and sabotage in our region and around the world,” Jubeir tweeted.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged all countries in the Gulf to sit down for talks to defuse tensions and said groundless accusations against Iran over the attacks were inflaming tensions, Interfax news agency reported.
Oil prices, which soared following the attack, steadied after Saudi Arabia pledged to restore full oil production by the end of September.
Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement, which is battling a Saudi-led military coalition, claimed responsibility for the assault on two Saudi oil plants, including the world’s largest processing facility. U.S. and Saudi officials rejected the claim, saying the attack had not come from the south.
Saudi-led forces launched a military operation north of Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah on Friday, saying it had destroyed four sites used in assembling remote-controlled boats and sea mines to help protect the freedom of maritime navigation.
U.N. MEETING IN FOCUS
Proof of Iranian responsibility for the Saudi attacks could provoke a response from Riyadh and Washington, which want to curb Iranian influence in the region.
Pompeo said the attacks would be a major focus of next week’s annual U.N. General Assembly meeting and suggested Riyadh could make its case there.
The U.S. issued visas allowing Rouhani and Zarif to travel to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly, Iranian U.N. mission spokesman Alireza Miryousefi confirmed to Reuters.
Zarif is to leave for New York on Friday to attend the General Assembly, the ministry spokesman tweeted on Thursday, after earlier reports of a U.S. delay in issuing a visa for the visit.
Tehran says the U.S. accusations are part of Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran to force it to renegotiate a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which Trump exited last year, reimposing sanctions to choke off Iran‘s oil exports.
Tehran, which has gradually scaled back its nuclear commitments, has rejected any talks unless sanctions are lifted.
“The United States is now using oil as a weapon; oil is not a weapon,” Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh said.