The Guardian

Tehran confirms attack on cargo ship suspected of military function

- Bethan McKernan Istanbul Oliver Holmes Jerusalem

The Iranian foreign ministry has confirmed that an Iranian cargo ship believed to be covertly deployed for military use off Yemen has been attacked, in an incident that threatens to inflame a proxy war between Iran and Israel.

Officials in Tehran said yesterday that the MV Saviz had been targeted in the Red Sea, a day after media reports that the ship had been damaged by limpet mines. Images broadcast by Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency showed parts of the ship on fire, and it said there had been an explosion to the hull.

A state TV report cited a New York Times story that quoted an anonymous US official saying Israel had informed the US it had attacked the vessel on Tuesday morning.

The strike on the vessel came as Iran and world powers sat down in Vienna for a first round of talks about the US potentiall­y rejoining the nuclear deal. Israel is bitterly opposed to a return to the agreement.

Asked by reporters yesterday if Israel, Iran’s arch foe, was involved in the attack, Israel’s defence minister, Benny Gantz, twice refused to comment specifical­ly. However, he said: “The state of Israel must defend itself. Every place we find an operationa­l challenge or operationa­l need, we will continue to act.”

The explosion occurred near Djibouti, east Africa, and caused minor damage but no casualties, said Saeed Khatibzade­h, an Iranian foreign ministry spokespers­on, adding that the incident was under investigat­ion.

The targeting of Saviz is the latest in a series of reported attacks on Israeli- or Iranian-owned cargo ships since late February, for which both sides have each accused the other.

Khatibzade­h reiterated previous Iranian statements that Saviz is a civilian ship stationed in the area to aid anti-piracy efforts in the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a crucial chokepoint in internatio­nal shipping.

US and Saudi analysis, however, asserts that the vessel is an important naval asset operated by Iran’s Revolution­ary Guards: uniformed men and a class of small boat used by the Guards have been photograph­ed on deck, according to a US Naval Institute report from October.

Briefing materials from the Saudi military obtained by the Associated Press also showed uniformed men on Saviz, and a variety of antennas that Riyadh described as unusual for a commercial cargo ship, suggesting it conducted electronic surveillan­ce. Other images showed the ship had mounts for .50-calibre machine guns.

Saviz, owned by the state-linked Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, came to the Red Sea in 2016, according to ship-tracking data.

It has since been observed in holding patterns across the Red Sea and off the coast of Yemen, where Iran supports Houthi rebels against the Yemeni government and a Saudi-led coalition.

It is probably an offshore surveillan­ce base, using the vessel’s radar and other systems to monitor traffic and provide intelligen­ce for possible targets in the important waterway.

Saviz was under internatio­nal sanctions until Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, under which Tehran received economic relief in exchange for limiting its enrichment of uranium. The Trump administra­tion renewed US sanctions on Saviz when it unilateral­ly withdrew.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Israel had bombed at least a dozen ships en route to Syria in the past two years, most of which have been carrying Iranian oil. Citing US officials, it said some of the naval attacks blocked Iranian efforts to move weaponry in the region.

Israel has conducted hundreds of aerial bombings against Iranian forces and their allies in neighbouri­ng Syria, but it has not indicated if it has also been conducting strikes at sea.

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