Iranian ship near Yemen attacked as nuclear deal talks begin

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – An Iranian cargo ship, considered a paramilitary Revolutionary Guard base and anchored for years in the Red Sea off Yemen, was attacked, Tehran admitted on Wednesday.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry confirmed the attack on the MV Saviz, which was believed to have been carried out by Israel. The attack came as Iran and the world powers met in Vienna for the first talks about the US, which could potentially rejoin Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal, and showed that the challenges ahead do not lie solely in these negotiations.

The ship’s long presence in the region, repeatedly criticized by Saudi Arabia, is due to the West and UN experts saying Iran had arms and support at the disposal of the Houthi rebels in Yemen during the years of war posed. Iran denies arming the Houthis, although components found in the rebels’ weapons are returning to Tehran.

Iran previously described the Saviz as an aid in fighting piracy in the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a critical bottleneck in international shipping. In a statement attributed to Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, the ship was referred to as a merchant ship.

“Fortunately, no casualties have been reported … and technical investigations are ongoing,” said Khatibzadeh. “Our country will take all necessary measures through international authorities.”

In a previous state TV statement, an anchor quoted a story in the New York Times in which an anonymous US official told the newspaper that Israel had informed America that it had carried out an attack on the ship Tuesday morning. Israeli officials declined to comment on the incident when it was reached by The Associated Press, as did the owner of the Saviz.

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However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Iran in a speech to his Likud party on Tuesday after being asked to form a government following the country’s recent elections.

“We must not come back to the dangerous nuclear deal with Iran, because a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to the state of Israel and a major threat to the security of the whole world,” said Netanyahu.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani described the Vienna talks as a “success” when he spoke to his cabinet on Wednesday.

“Today we heard a joint statement that all sides of the nuclear deal have come to the conclusion that there is no better solution than the deal,” he said.

The semi-official Iranian news agency Tasnim, believed to be close to the Guard, blamed explosives on Saviz’s hull for the explosion. It blamed no one for the attack and said Iranian officials would likely offer more information in the coming days.

In a statement, the US military’s central command only said it was “aware of media coverage of an incident involving the Saviz in the Red Sea.”

“We can confirm that no US forces were involved in the incident,” the order said. “We don’t have any additional information to provide.”

The Saviz, which belongs to the state-affiliated shipping line of the Islamic Republic of Iran, came to the Red Sea at the end of 2016, according to ship tracking data. In recent years it has migrated from the Dahlak Archipelago, a chain of islands off the coast of the nearby African nation of Eritrea in the Red Sea. It probably received supplies and changed crews via passing Iranian ships using the waterway.

Briefing materials from the Saudi military previously received from the AP showed men on the ship in camouflage, military clothing and small boats capable of carrying cargo to the Yemeni coast. These informational materials also included images showing a variety of antennas on the ship, which the Saudi government described as unusual for a commercial cargo ship, suggesting that it was conducting electronic surveillance. Other images showed the ship had mounts for .50 caliber machine guns.

The Washington Institute for Middle East Policy has described the Saviz as the “Iranian mother ship” in the region and similarly described it as an information base and armory for the Guard. The Institute’s policy papers do not explain how they reached this conclusion, although its analysts routinely have access to military sources in the Gulf and Israel.

The Saviz were under international sanctions until the Iranian nuclear deal with the world powers in 2015, which gave Tehran economic relief in return for limiting its uranium enrichment. The Trump administration later renewed American sanctions on the Saviz as part of their decision to unilaterally withdraw from the deal.

In June 2019, Saudi Arabia flew a seriously ill Iranian from Saviz after Tehran asked the United Nations for assistance.

Amid heightened US-Iran tensions, a number of mysterious explosions have targeted ships in the region, including some that the US Navy has accused of Iran. Among the recently damaged ships was an Israeli car transporter in an attack Netanyahu accused Iran. Another was an Iranian cargo ship in the Mediterranean.

Iran has also blamed Israel for a number of attacks, including a mysterious explosion in July that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear power plant. Another reason is the November murder of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a leading Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago.

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