A day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for the attack on Saudi oil facilities and argued there is “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen,” a senior administration official briefed CNN on information to back up Pompeo’s claims.
The official pointed to the angle at which Saudi oil facilities were attacked, the numbers of points of impact and other information to argue that it is unlikely the attacks were carried out by Yemen. Instead, the official suggested the attack most likely originated in Iran or Iraq.
“It is very difficult to see how these things could have come from anywhere but Iran or Iraq,” the senior administration official said.
The official said 19 Saudi targets were struck in Saturday’s attack and argued that such an attack could not be carried out with 10 drones, which the Houthis claimed to have used.
“You can’t hit 19 targets with 10 drones like that,” the official said.
The official, drawing on commercial satellite imagery shared with CNN, also noted that “all the points of impact on Saudi facilities were on the northwest side of them, which is somewhat difficult to do from Yemen.” The official could not say whether it’s possible drones from Yemen could have angled around to attack northwest facilities.
Citing a potential impact on oil prices because of the attack, President Donald Trump tweeted Sunday that he authorized “the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, if needed, in a to-be-determined amount sufficient to keep the markets well-supplied.”
The private satellite images come at a time of escalating tension between Iran and the US following a series of other provocations in recent months, notably Tehran shooting down a US drone aircraft in June paired with an increased American military presence in the region. The confrontations have raised fears that a conflict between the two countries could spiral.
On Saturday, coordinated strikes on key Saudi Arabian oil facilities – among the world’s largest energy production centers – disrupted 5% of the daily global oil supply. Yemen’s Houthi rebels took responsibility for the attacks, but they are often backed by Iran.
Preliminary indications – even before commercial images of the oil processing plant were released – suggested the attack did not originate from Yemen and likely originated from Iraq, according to a source with knowledge of the incident. The same official said the damage was caused by an armed drone attack.
Three CNN military experts have examined the private satellite photos.
Ret. Col. Cedric Leighton, who is an intelligence expert with a focus in imagery, said the images do help support the Trump administration’s claim that the drones likely came from Iraq or Iran, but cautioned that they’re not definitive.
“This is the handiwork of a sophisticated (most likely State) actor. The precise nature of the intelligence used to conduct targeting, the mission planning that went into this to avoid radar detection, as well as the selection of the targets shows a robust capability that would most likely be the work of a government or government-sponsored group,” Leighton told CNN Sunday.
“The drones most likely originated in either Southern Iraq or Iran,” he said.
Ret. Gen. Mark Hertling said the images “really don’t show anything, other than pretty good accuracy on the strike of the oil tanks. Ret. Adm. John Kirby echoed this point, stating “there is nothing I see in these pictures which confirms a launch from any particular location.”
“I’m struck by the precision of the strikes. Almost pin-prick,” Kirby said. “Certainly possible with (unmanned aerial vehicles). But again, that doesn’t really confirm anything.”
The senior administration official pointed to open source reports that Kuwait detected a drone in its airspace prior to the attack in Saudi Arabia and noted that the Iraqis “have been very explicit” that the attack did not originate in their airspace, suggesting Iran was the most likely point of origin.
“If this was a military offensive launched from Iran to Saudi Arabia, that is extremely serious,” the official said.
The official declined to say what retaliatory options the administration was considering and said that “the President wants all options on the table.”
The official also pointed to Saudi intelligence suggesting a possible cruise missile attack, but said the US had not yet corroborated that information.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did not specifically reference the attack on the Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in an address on Iran’s Press TV Sunday but did accuse Americans of running a “war operation” by “supporting the UAE and Saudi Arabia, transferring weapons, and providing intelligence.”
“What is happening in this region today has created concern among majority of world countries,” he said.
Earlier Sunday White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway said Trump has “many options on the table” when it comes to responding to the strike on Saudi Arabia’s oil production this weekend.
“The President will always consider his options,” Conway said on “Fox News Sunday” when asked if Trump would still sit down with Rouhani under current circumstances. “We’ve never committed to that meeting at the United Nations General Assembly. The President’s just said he’s looking at it.”
“When you attack Saudi Arabia … you’re not helping your case much,” she added.
After Pompeo pinned the blame on Iran for the attack on Saturday, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Seyyed Abbas Mousavi rejected the accusation, labeling it “inappropriate.”
“Such blind accusations and inappropriate comments in a diplomatic context are incomprehensible and meaningless,” he said, adding: “Even hostility needs a certain degree of credibility and reasonable frameworks, US officials have also violated these basic principles.”
CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Ryan Browne, Bianca Britton, John Defterios and Victoria Cavaliere contributed to this report.