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Journalists film what Col. Turki Al Malki said was evidence of Iranian weaponry used in the attack that targeted Saudi Aramco’s facilities. Image Credit: AP

Riyadh: Saudi Arabia said it would produce evidence on Wednesday linking regional rival Tehran to an unprecedented attack on its oil industry that Washington believes originated from Iran in a dangerous escalation of Middle East frictions.

But Tehran again denied involvement in the September 14 attacks on oil plants, including the world’s biggest crude processing facility, that initially knocked out half of Saudi production.

Yemen’s pro-Iran Al Houthi militia, an ally of Iran battling the Saudi-led coalition for more than four years, has claimed responsibility and said it used drones to assault state oil company Aramco’s sites.

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This image, provided on September 15, shows the Khurais plant after the attack.

However, the Saudi Defence Ministry said it will hold a news conference on Wednesday at 1430 GMT to present “material evidence and Iranian weapons proving the Iranian regime’s involvement in the terrorist attack”.

Why is caution being stressed?

Concrete evidence showing Iranian responsibility, if made public, could pressure Riyadh and Washington into a response, though both nations have stressed the need for caution.

US President Donald Trump has said he does not want war, there is “no rush” to retaliate, and coordination is taking place with Gulf and European states.

‘Almost certain’ Iran behind attack

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman said on Wednesday, in a call with South Korea’s leader, that the attack was a “real test of the global will” to confront subversion of international stability, state media reported.

His envoy to London, Prince Khalid Bin Bander, told the BBC the attack was “almost certainly” Iranian-backed but: “We’re trying not to react too quickly because the last thing we need is more conflict in the region.”

Saudi Arabia’s 9/11?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and United Nations officials monitoring sanctions on Iran and Yemen were heading to Saudi Arabia for talks and investigations.

The attack is like September 11 for Saudi Arabia, it is a game changer.

- A Saudi security analyst

A US official told Reuters the strikes originated in southwestern Iran. Three officials said they involved cruise missiles and drones, indicating a higher degree of complexity and sophistication than initially thought.

The officials did not provide evidence or explain what US intelligence they were using for evaluating the attack that cut 5 per cent of global production. One of the three US officials voiced confidence the Saudi probe would yield “compelling forensic evidence” determining the origins of the attack that has exposed serious gaps in Saudi air defences despite billions of dollars spent on Western military hardware.

“The attack is like September 11 for Saudi Arabia, it is a game changer,” said one Saudi security analyst.

Will Russia, China shield Iran at UN?

A senior US official called for a UN Security Council response to the attacks, although success is unlikely because diplomats say Russia and China - who have veto powers - are likely to shield Iran.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, said on Tuesday the 5.7 million barrels per day of output lost would be fully restored by the end of the month.

5.7m

barrels per day of oil output lost

Oil prices fell after the Saudi reassurances, having surged more than 20 per cent at one point on Monday - the biggest intra-day jump since the 1990-91 Gulf War.

Will US issue visas to Rouhani, Zarif for UN meet?

Already frayed US-Iran ties deteriorated further when Trump quit a nuclear pact between Tehran and the West last year and reimposed sanctions, severely hurting the Iranian economy.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ruled out talks with Washington unless it returns to the pact.

Trump said he is not looking to meet Rouhani during a UN event in New York this month. Rouhani and his foreign minister may not attend the General Assembly at all if US visas are not issued in coming hours, state media reported Wednesday.

Washington and its Gulf allies want Iran to stop supporting regional proxies, including in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

Despite years of air strikes against them, Al Houthi movement boasts drones and missiles able to reach deep into Saudi Arabia, the result of an arms race since the Western-backed coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015.

Iran’s clerical rulers support Al Houthis, who ousted Yemen’s internationally recognised government from power in the capital Sana’a in late 2014. But Tehran denies it actively supports them with military and financial support.

How have major powers reacted?

Illustrating global caution over such an inflammatory issue, Japan’s new defence chief said Tokyo has not seen any intelligence that shows Iran was involved in the attack.

France said it will not rush into commenting on who was behind an attack on Saudi oil installations. “We share the desire to carefully establish the facts before making any reaction,” a foreign ministry spokesman said. Earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said Paris would send experts to Saudi Arabia to help with investigations into the attack.