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Above: the MV Saviz

Bethan McKernan and Oliver Holmes – The Guardian April 7, 2021

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

Officials in Tehran confirmed on Wednesday that the MV Saviz had been targeted in the Red Sea, a day after media reports said the ship had suffered damage after being hit by limpet mines. Images broadcast by Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency showed parts of the ship on fire. Tasnim said an explosion had targeted the hull.

In a state TV report, an anchor cited a New York Times story, which quoted an anonymous US official telling the newspaper that Israel had informed the US it attacked the vessel on Tuesday morning.

Asked by reporters on Wednesday if Israel, Iran’s arch foe, was involved in the attack, the country’s defence minister, Benny Gantz, twice refused to comment on it specifically.

However, he added: “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 the Djibouti coast and caused minor damage with no casualties, Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said, adding that the incident was under investigation.

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

Khatibzadeh reiterated previous Iranian statements that the MV 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 choke point 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 onboard the ship’s 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 the Saviz, as well as a variety of antennas on the vessel 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.

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

It most likely functions as 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.

In June 2019, Saudi Arabia flew a critically ill Iranian off the Saviz after Tehran made a request through the United Nations for assistance.

The ship had been 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 later renewed US sanctions on the Saviz as part of its decision to unilaterally withdraw from the accord.

The attack 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.

Amid the wider tensions between the US and Iran, last month the Wall Street Journal reported 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, the report 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. Officials do not usually comment on alleged military action.

Iran also has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks inside the country, including a mysterious explosion in July that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility.

Another was the November killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the country’s military nuclear programme two decades ago

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