By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Marwa Rashad
MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia prepared to hold emergency Arab summits on Thursday to deliver a strong message to Iran over regional security after attacks on Gulf oil assets this month as American officials said a U.S. military deployment had deterred Tehran.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have lobbied Washington to contain foe Shi’ite Muslim Iran, have said they want to avoid war after drone strikes on oil pumping stations in the kingdom and the sabotage of tankers off the UAE.
Riyadh accused Tehran of ordering the drone strikes, which were claimed by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said on Thursday that evidence of Iran being behind the tanker attacks would be presented to the United Nations Security Council as early as next week.
Tehran denies any involvement in either one.
Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf said ahead of the two late night summits of Sunni Muslim Gulf leaders and Arab leaders, that the attacks must be addressed with “strength and firmness”.
“While summit leaders are likely to discuss how best to avoid a war, King Salman is equally determined to defend Saudi and Arab interests amid increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran,” Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy, wrote in an opinion piece published by Al Arabiya.
Tensions have risen between the United States and Iran after Washington quit a multinational nuclear deal with Iran, re-imposed sanctions and boosted its military presence in the Gulf.
Bolton has said that Iranian mines were “almost certainly” used in the tanker attacks, which he described as being connected to the strike on pumping stations on the kingdom’s East-West pipeline and a rocket attack on Baghdad’s Green Zone.
An Iranian official dismissed Bolton’s remarks as “a ludicrous claim”. The Islamic Republic has said it would defend itself against any military or economic aggression.
Bolton and the U.S. special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, told reporters on Thursday that a repositioning of U.S. military assets in the region had succeeded in deterring Iran.
Bolton, speaking in London, said it would be a big mistake if Iran or its surrogates in the region attacked U.S. interests. Hook told a news conference call that the United States would respond with military force if that happens.
Last week the Pentagon announced the deployment of 900 additional troops to the Middle East and extended the stay of another 600 service members, after speeding up deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group and sending bombers and additional Patriot missiles.
The United States and the UAE, which hosts a U.S. air base, on Wednesday activated a defense cooperation agreement signed earlier this year.
Gulf states have a joint defense force under the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but the 39-year-old alliance has been fractured by a dispute that has seen Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and non-GCC Egypt impose a political and economic boycott on Qatar since mid-2017.
Saudi King Salman invited Qatar’s ruler, whose country is home to the largest U.S. military base in the region, to the summits. Doha is sending Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani, the highest level Qatari official to visit the kingdom since the rift.
Iraq and Oman, which have good ties with Tehran and Washington, have said they are working to reduce tensions. Doha, which shares a giant gas field with Iran, has offered to help.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on a trip to Iraq this month that Tehran wanted balanced ties with Gulf neighbors and had proposed signing a non-aggression pact with them.
UAE newspaper Gulf News said in an editorial, which are usually state-approved, that the offer was “bizarre” and that Gulf states were not buying Iran’s “‘nice neighbor’ routine”.
(Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London, Lisa Barrington, Sylvia Westall and Maher Chmaytelli in Dubai and Eric Knecht in Doha; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by William Maclean, Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry)