Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Wednesday said Israel would take military action anywhere there was a threat against it, after an American official attributed a mine attack on an Iranian ship in the Red Sea the previous day to Israeli naval commandos.
On Tuesday morning, limpet mines were reportedly detonated on the MV Saviz, a cargo ship off the coast of Yemen that has been allegedly used for years by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a command-and-control center for its operations in the region.
Israeli officials have refused to comment on the matter, in line with a longstanding policy of ambiguity regarding its military actions against Iran in the region, save for those that are direct, immediate retaliations for attacks on Israel.
Speaking to reporters, Gantz also refrained from discussing the alleged Israeli attack on the Saviz specifically — twice saying that he wouldn’t comment on the matter — but said generally that the military would take action anywhere it determines it needs to.
“The State of Israel must defend itself. Every place we find an operational challenge or operational need, we will continue to act,” Gantz said.
The defense minister made his remarks following a ceremony marking 10 years since the Iron Dome missile defense system made its first interception of an incoming rocket.
“We are preparing ourselves at this time on numerous fronts: at our southern and northern borders, as well as vis-à-vis the threats that Iran is presenting, whether directly or indirectly via its proxies in the Middle East,” Gantz said in his speech, held at an active Iron Dome battery in central Israel.
“To our enemies I want to say: We are here today marking 10 years of active service of the Iron Dome, but this isn’t the only system we have. We have offensive capabilities that operate 24/7, 365 days a year. They are ready for use on any front, at any range and for any action that the IDF needs,” he said
Late Tuesday night, a US official told The New York Times that Israel notified Washington in advance 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 for several attacks on Israeli-owned shipping vessels in recent weeks, and that the ship had been hit below the water line.
The IRGC blamed Israel for the attack on social media and Iran’s Foreign Ministry said the vessel had been damaged in an “explosion.”
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 had exploded, causing damage. 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 denied involvement in the attack.
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.
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.
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.
In recent months, reports have indicated the Israel-Iran conflict was increasingly being waged at sea, marking a change in the conflict that previously took place primarily via airstrikes, cyberattacks, alleged espionage activities and on land.
Starting in 2019, Israel attacked Iranian commercial ships transporting oil and weapons in the Mediterranean and Red Sea in violation of international sanctions, 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. Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
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.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.