Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, accused Iran of committing an “act of war” by attacking Saudi Arabian oil facilities, as the Trump administration prepared to impose more sanctions on Tehran in response to the strikes that took out half of the kingdom’s crude oil production.

The accusation, which came as Mr Pompeo visited Saudi Arabia, marked the toughest language by a US official since Washington first claimed that the Iranian regime had conducted the weekend attacks.

Mr Trump on Wednesday said he had ordered Treasury to impose “substantially” tougher sanctions on Iran, which is already reeling from a more than year-long US “maximum pressure” campaign.

Mr Pompeo has taken a tougher public line on Iran than the president since the attacks. Mr Trump has suggested that Iran was responsible — a claim denied by Tehran — and his decision to impose more sanctions on the regime underscored that his team believed that Iran should be held to account.

“We’re really at a point now where we know very much what happened,” Mr Trump said during a visit to Los Angeles on Wednesday.

The Trump administration has suggested — without releasing evidence — that the attack included long-range missiles that appeared to have been fired from inside Iran. One US official said it was “significant” that the strikes appeared to emanate from the north-west of the facilities.

Mr Trump has in recent days indicated that he did not want war with Iran but also made clear that he viewed a lethal military strike as a proportionate response to the attacks on the kingdom. On Wednesday, he refused to say if the sanctions would be the only response, saying only “we’ll see.”

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The US president said that he had many options, including the “ultimate option”, in a comment that appeared to refer to a military option. Asked whether he agreed with Mr Pompeo’s assessment, Mr Trump responded: “He spoke to me a little while ago, and we’ll have an announcement?”

Remains of the missiles which Saudi government says were used to attack an Aramco oil facility, are displayed during a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia September 18, 2019. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed REFILE - ADDING INFORMATION
© Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

Mr Trump also pushed back against the assertions by some, including his Republican ally Senator Lindsey Graham, that his decision not to strike Iran in June after it shot down a US drone had emboldened the Islamic regime. Mr Trump countered that his hesitation was a sign of strength.

“I think it’s a great sign of strength. It’s very easy to attack,” Mr Trump said. “Ask him, ‘How did going into the Middle East . . . work out? And how did going in Iraq work out?”

Mr Trump said there was “plenty of time to do some dastardly things . . . We’ll see what happens.”

Mr Trump also suggested that he would not try to block Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, from attending the UN General Assembly in New York next week. Mr Trump had originally wanted to meet Mr Rouhani to find an opening to tackle the crisis that has erupted since he withdrew the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last year, but Tehran has shown no interest.

Responding to the threat of more sanctions, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Mr Trump of “targeting” Iranian citizens and employing “economic terrorism”. The US has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran since abandoning the nuclear deal negotiated by President Barack Obama, meaning that there will not be much scope for additional punishment.

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“The Trump administration will be scraping the bottom of the barrel,” said Henry Rome, an analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington.

FILE - In this July 30, 2019, file photo, Robert O'Brien, U.S. Special Envoy Ambassador, arrives at the district court where U.S. rapper A$AP Rocky is to appear on charges of assault, in Stockholm, Sweden. President Donald Trump says he plans to name O'Brien to be his new national security adviser. (Erik Simander/TT via AP)
Robert O’Brien has served as Donald Trump’s special presidential envoy © AP

Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Trump said Robert O’Brien, the state department’s envoy for hostage affairs, would become his fourth national security adviser following the departure of John Bolton.

Flanked by Mr O’Brien during his trip to California, Mr Trump said the new sanctions would be unveiled within 48 hours but added that military action was still an option: “If we have to do something, we’ll do it without hesitation”.

While Mr Bolton was an outspoken Iran hawk, Mr O’Brien’s views are less well known. A Los Angeles-based lawyer, he is a former UN and George W Bush administration official who wrote a book titled While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis. One of his most prominent roles this year was to monitor the Swedish trial of A$AP Rocky, a US rapper.

Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s deputy defence minister, on Wednesday said the Trump administration had “confronted the Iranian regime’s and terrorist organisations’ aggression in an unprecedented way”.

Colonel Turki al-Malki, the Saudi defence ministry spokesperson, offered more details of its assessment of the attack, saying missiles and drones were launched from the north and the arms were of Iranian origin. But he said Riyadh was still “working to know exactly the launch point”.

“We have a lot of evidence against the IRCG [Iran’s Revolutionary Guards],” said Col Malki, who added that 18 drones were launched against Abqaia oil processing facility in addition to seven cruise missiles that were fired at Khurais oilfield, three of which fell short.

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Echoing the US view, Col Malki dismissed claims made by Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen that they conducted the attack. “They are not coming from Yemen. T Houthi militia and the [Iranian] proxy in Yemen are just following the orders of the IRGC.”

Additional reporting by Andrew England in London and Peter Wells in New York

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Via Financial Times