DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – An Iranian freighter believed to be a base for the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and anchored for years in the Red Sea off Yemen was attacked, Tehran acknowledged Wednesday.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the attack on MV Saviz, allegedly carried out by Israel. The assault came as Iran and world powers sat down in Vienna for the first talks on the possible reincorporation of the United States into the ruined Tehran nuclear deal, demonstrating that the challenges ahead do not simply rest on those negotiations.
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 weapons and support to Yemen’s Houthi rebels amid a years-long war in that country. . Iran denies having armed the Houthis, although the components found in the rebels’ weapons link with Tehran.
Iran previously described Saviz as a collaborator in “anti-piracy” efforts in the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a crucial choke point in international shipping. 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 the necessary measures through the international authorities.”
In an earlier statement on state television, one host quoted a New York Times story, quoting an anonymous American official telling the newspaper that Israel informed the United States that it carried out an attack Tuesday morning in the ship. Israeli officials declined to comment on the incident when contacted by The Associated Press, as did the owner of the Saviz.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned Iran in a speech to his Likud party on Tuesday after he was asked to form a government following the country’s recent elections.
“We must not return 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.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the Vienna talks a “success” while speaking to his cabinet on Wednesday.
“Today, a united statement is heard that all parties to the nuclear deal have come to the conclusion that there is no better solution than the deal,” he said.
Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency, believed to be close to the Guard, blamed the explosives planted in Saviz’s helmet for the blast. He did not blame anyone for the attack and said Iranian officials would likely offer more information in the coming days.
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 forces were involved in the incident,” the command said. “We have no additional information to provide.”
The Saviz, owned by the state shipping company of the Islamic Republic of Iran, reached the Red Sea in late 2016, according to ship tracking data. In the years since, it has drifted away from the Dahlak Archipelago, a chain of islands off the coast of the nearby African nation of Eritrea in the Red Sea. It likely received resupply of supplies and changed crews via Iranian vessels passing through the waterway.
Informational materials from the Saudi army previously obtained by AP showed men on the ship dressed in camouflage, military-style uniforms, as well as small boats capable of transporting cargo to the Yemeni coast. That informational material also included images showing a variety of antennas on the ship that the Saudi government described as unusual for a commercial cargo ship, suggesting that it conducted electronic surveillance. Other images showed that 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 arsenal for the Guard. The institute’s policy documents do not explain how they reached that conclusion, although its analysts routinely have access to Israeli and Gulf military sources.
El 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 uranium enrichment. The Trump administration later renewed US sanctions on the Saviz as part of its decision to unilaterally withdraw from the deal.
In June 2019, Saudi Arabia removed a seriously ill Iranian from Saviz after Tehran requested help from the United Nations.
Amid the broader tensions between the United States and Iran, a series of mysterious explosions have targeted ships in the region, including some that the US Navy blamed on Iran. Among the recently damaged ships was an Israeli-owned aircraft carrier in an attack Netanyahu attributed to Iran. Another was an Iranian freighter in the Mediterranean Sea.
Iran also blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including a mysterious explosion in July that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility. Another is the November assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a prominent Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago.
Associated Press journalists Nasser Karimi and Mehdi Fattahi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.
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