Iran acknowledged Wednesday an attack on a cargo ship believed to be a base for the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and anchored for years in the Red Sea off Yemen, saying the vessel was damaged in an “explosion.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the attack on the MV Saviz, suspected to have been carried out by Israel.
A statement attributed to Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh described the ship as a commercial vessel.
“Fortunately, no casualties were reported… and technical investigations are underway,” Khatibzadeh said. “Our country will take all necessary measures through international authorities.”
A US official told The New York Times that Israel notified the US that Israeli forces attacked the ship around 7:30 a.m. local time on Tuesday.
The anonymous US official said Israel called the strike a retaliation, and that the ship had been hit below the water line.
The IRGC blamed Israel for the attack on social media, The New York Times said.
The US official said the attack may have been timed to let an American aircraft carrier, the Dwight D. Eisenhower, move away from the area. The carrier was around 200 miles away at the time of the strike, the official said.
In an earlier Iranian state TV statement, an anchor cited the New York Times story.
Israel has not officially commented on the incident. Israel rarely confirms or denies strikes against Iran-linked targets, but sometimes claims credit for attacks that are a direct response to aggression by Iran or its proxies.
The attack came as Iran and world powers sat down in Vienna for the first talks about the US potentially rejoining Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal, showing that challenges ahead don’t rest merely in those negotiations. Israel strongly opposes the deal’s revival.
The ship’s long presence in the region, repeatedly criticized by Saudi Arabia, has come as the West and United Nations experts say Iran has provided arms and support to Yemen’s Houthi rebels amid that country’s years-long war. Iran denies arming the Houthis, though components found in the rebels’ weaponry link back to Tehran.
Iran previously described the Saviz as aiding in “anti-piracy” efforts in the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a crucial chokepoint in international shipping.
Israeli officials declined to comment Tuesday night about the incident when reached by The Associated Press.
However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday brought up Iran in a speech to his Likud party after being asked to form a government following the recent Knesset election.
“We must not go back to the dangerous nuclear deal with Iran, because a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to the State of Israel and a great threat to the security of the entire world,” Netanyahu said.
Iran’s semiofficial Tasnim news agency, believed to be close to the Guard, reported the attack late Tuesday, saying explosives planted on the hull of the Saviz exploded. It did not blame anyone for the attack and said Iranian officials likely would offer more information in the coming days.
In a statement, the US military’s Central Command only said it was “aware of media reporting of an incident involving the Saviz in the Red Sea.”
“We can confirm that no US forces were involved in the incident,” the command said. “We have no additional information to provide.”
The Saviz, owned by the state-linked Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, came to the Red Sea in late 2016, according to ship-tracking data. In the years since, it has drifted off the Dahlak archipelago, a chain of islands off the coast of the nearby African nation of Eritrea in the Red Sea. It likely received supply replenishments and switched crew via passing Iranian vessels using the waterway.
Briefing materials from the Saudi military earlier obtained by the AP showed men on the vessel dressed in camouflage, military-style fatigues, as well as small boats capable of ferrying cargo to the Yemeni coast. That briefing material also included pictures showing a variety of antennas on the vessel that the Saudi government described as unusual for a commercial cargo ship, suggesting it conducted electronic surveillance. Other images showed the ship had mounts for .50-caliber machine guns.
The Washington Institute for Near-East Policy has called the Saviz an “Iranian mothership” in the region, similarly describing it as an intelligence-gathering base and an armory for the Guard. Policy papers from the institute don’t explain how they came to that conclusion, though its analysts routinely have access to Gulf and Israeli military sources.
The Saviz had been under international sanctions until Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which saw Tehran receive economic relief in exchange for limiting its enrichment of uranium. The Trump administration later renewed American sanctions on the Saviz as part of its decision to unilaterally withdraw from the accord.
In June 2019, Saudi Arabia flew a critically ill Iranian off the Saviz after Tehran made a request through the United Nations for assistance.
In recent months, reports have showed the Israel-Iran conflict has spilled into the sea, marking a new front in the conflict that previously took place via airstrikes, alleged espionage activities and on land.
Starting in 2019, Israel attacked Iranian commercial ships transporting oil and weapons in the Mediterranean and Red Sea, according to US media reports.
Israel and Iran have accused each other recently of attacking a number of merchant ships, damaging them with explosives. The vessels in each case were only lightly damaged and there were no reported injuries in the incidents.
On February 26, a blast struck the Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged cargo ship, in the Gulf of Oman. Netanyahu accused Iran of attacking the ship. Iran swiftly denied the charge, but experts say the attack bears hallmarks of previous attacks ascribed to Tehran.
The operation seemed to have been carefully planned, and mirrored a series of attacks on tankers in 2019 and an Iranian campaign against shipping vessels four decades ago.
Another Israeli-owned vessel reportedly came under missile fire in the Gulf of Oman in late March, possibly by Iranian forces.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Israel has targeted at least 12 ships bound for Syria, most of them transporting Iranian oil, with mines and other weapons.
Iran, whose leaders have repeatedly called for Israel’s demise, backs the Hezbollah terrorist group, as well as terror groups in the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli military has launched hundreds of airstrikes in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011 against moves by Iran to establish a permanent military presence in the country and efforts to transport advanced, “game-changing” weapons to terrorist groups in the region, principally Hezbollah.
Iran has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including a mysterious explosion last summer that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago.
Tensions have heated in the Middle East in recent months, as Iran repeatedly violated the terms of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers ahead of talks with the Biden administration.