DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – An Iranian ship believed to be a base for paramilitary Revolutionary Guards and anchored for years in the Red Sea off Yemen has been attacked, Tehran admitted on Wednesday.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the attack on MV Saviz, suspected of having been carried out by Israel – although Tehran did not immediately blame its main regional enemy. The assault came as Iran and world powers sat in Vienna for the first talks on the potential US return to the tattered deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, showing that events in outside negotiations could derail these efforts.
The ship’s long presence in the region, repeatedly criticized by Saudi Arabia, comes as Western and UN experts say Iran has provided arms and support to Yemen’s Houthi rebels in the war. that has been going on for years. Iran denies arming the Houthis, although components found in the rebel weaponry are linked to Tehran.
Iran has previously described the Saviz as aiding “anti-piracy” efforts in the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a critical choke point in international shipping. A statement attributed to Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh described the vessel as a commercial vessel.
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“Fortunately, no casualties have been reported … and technical investigations are ongoing,” Khatibzadeh said. “Our country will take all necessary measures through the international authorities.”
In an earlier state television statement, a newscaster quoted a New York Times article, which quoted an unnamed U.S. official telling the newspaper that Israel informed America that it carried out an attack on Tuesday morning on the ship. Israeli officials declined to comment on the assault when contacted by The Associated Press, as did the owner of the Saviz.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, while declining to say whether his country launched the attack, described Iran and its regional allies as a major threat.
“Israel must continue to defend itself,” Gantz told reporters. “Wherever we find an operational challenge and a necessity, we will continue to act.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the Vienna talks “a success” when addressing his cabinet on Wednesday.
“Today we hear a joint statement that all parties to the nuclear deal have concluded that there is no better solution than the deal,” he said.
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Iranian semi-official Tasnim news agency, which is said to be close to the Guard, reported that a limpet mine placed on Saviz’s hull caused the explosion. A limpet mine is a type of naval mine attached to the side of a ship, usually by a diver. It later explodes and can seriously damage a ship. Iran blamed no one for the attack and said Iranian officials would likely offer more information in the days to come.
In a statement, the US Army Central Command only said it was “aware of media reports of an incident involving the Saviz in the Red Sea.”
“We can confirm that no American force was 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 company, arrived in the Red Sea in late 2016, according to vessel tracking data. In the years that followed, he drifted off the Dahlak Archipelago, a chain of islands off the coast of the African nation of Eritrea. He probably received resupplies and changed crews passing through Iranian ships using the waterway.
Saudi Army briefings previously obtained by the PA showed men on the ship dressed in military-style fatigues, as well as small boats capable of carrying goods to the Yemeni coast. Those documents also included images showing a variety of antennas on the ship that the Saudi government described as unusual for a commercial freighter, suggesting it was carrying out electronic surveillance. Further footage showed the ship had mounts for .50 caliber machine guns.
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The Washington Institute for Near-East Policy has called the Saviz an “Iranian mothership” to the region, similarly describing it as an intelligence gathering base and arsenal for the Guard. The institute’s policy documents do not explain how they came to this conclusion, although its analysts have regular access to Gulf and Israeli military sources.
Saviz was under international sanctions until Iran’s nuclear deal in 2015 with world powers, which allowed Tehran to benefit from sanctions relief in exchange for limiting its uranium enrichment. The Trump administration subsequently renewed US sanctions against Saviz as part of its decision to unilaterally withdraw from the deal.
In June 2019, Saudi Arabia removed a critically ill Iranian from Saviz after Tehran requested assistance from the United Nations.
Amid the wider tensions between the United States and Iran, a series of mysterious explosions have targeted ships in the region, including some that the United States Navy blamed on Iran. Among the recently damaged ships was an Israeli-owned car transporter in an attack Netanyahu blamed on Iran. Another was an Iranian cargo ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
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Iran has also blamed Israel for a recent round of attacks, including a mysterious explosion in July that destroyed a state-of-the-art centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility. Another is the November murder of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a prominent Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago.
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