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The Latest Reported Israeli Attack on an Iranian Ship Seems Like a Deliberate Escalation

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Satellite photo shows the Iranian cargo ship MV Saviz in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen, last year.
Satellite photo shows the Iranian cargo ship MV Saviz in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen, last year.Credit: Planet Labs Inc. via AP

The Iranian ship Saviz, which was hit by a mine in the Red Sea on Tuesday in an attack attributed to Israel, was considered "a mothership" for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, setting the latest incident apart from previous ones.

It's a part of a series of similar attacks against Iranian ships in the Mediterranean and Red Sea, and the second one reported in the past month, since the Wall Street Journal reported about a seaborne campaign Israel has launched against Iran.

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The Saviz had spent many months in the region where it was hit, between Yemen and Eritrea. It’s a type of command ship from which intelligence and commando operations can be conducted.

The previous targets of attacks attributed to Israel were ships engaged in smuggling oil from Iran to Syria, in exchange for funding the purchase of weapons for Hezbollah. Others were smuggling weapons to Hezbollah. The target this time, however, was unusual with regard to its significance and direct link to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. It looks like a deliberate escalation on Israel’s part. It may have been linked to two Iranian attacks in February and March, aimed at Israeli-owned merchant vessels in the Arabian Sea between the Indian and Persian Gulf coasts.

Sources in the U.S. administration told The New York Times that Israel notified Washington about the attack after it took place, and said it had been perpetrated by the Israel Navy. The leak to the Times, which followed the report in the Wall Street Journal, reflects dissatisfaction on the part of the United States with Israel’s attacks, coming against the backdrop of renewed contacts between Iran and the world powers about the United States returning to the nuclear deal.

Speaking about the campaign against Iran, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Wednesday, without any direct reference to the most recent incident, that Israel “is prepared at this time for a continuation of possible confrontations in the south, the north, to threats that Iran poses, whether directly or indirectly via its emissaries in the Middle East.”

Israeli and Gulf-region intelligence agencies are familiar with the Saviz, which has in the past decade openly been known as a ship engaged in surveillance and control missions during seaborne operations.

The naval arm of the Revolutionary Guards, established in 1984 with the aim of maintaining Iran’s sea trade and control of the seas near the Persian Gulf, fighting hostile forces and blocking important sea lanes when necessary, has also been responsible for the Saviz in recent years.

According to foreign reports, the Saviz floats around the region of the Gulf with a crew of about 60. During operations, the crew could number up to 200 people. Although the ship bares civilian markings, it has a military commando unit on board armed with machine guns, intelligence-gathering systems and armed personnel wearing Iranian military uniforms.

Iranian-flagged container ship Shahr e Kord, which Iran accused Israel of attacking last monthCredit: Yoruk Isik

The Saviz has been mentioned with regard to other events in which Iranian ships have come under attack and where the Iranians have attacked other vessels. An Indian naval research center has examined an incident in which Iranian oil tanker Sabiti was damaged on October 11, 2019, off the Saudi coast. Iran says it was hit by foreign forces fired two missiles at the tanker, which damaged it and caused an oil leak.

Indian researchers asserted that the tanker was smuggling oil in an attempt to bypass sanctions on Iran, noting that the Saviz was in the area, apparently monitoring the transfer of the oil.

A similar incident occurred in May 2019 when a tanker called Happiness was hit by a missile fired in its direction. Reports said that the Saviz was nearby and left immediately after the strike on the tanker.

Several weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing senior sources in the U.S. and the Middle East, that Israel has actively and systematically sought since 2019 to thwart the oil smuggling from Iran during the period of sanctions by attacking Iranian tankers.

The Red Sea maritime area has become a central conflict zone since 2018, and Iran has played a significant role in incidents in which merchant and military vessels of foreign nations have come under attack. In June 2019 a Saudi battleship was struck by an unmanned vessel and Iran was the primary suspect. The Saviz was seen near the scene with three boats belonging to special Iranian forces on board, and assessments were that it supplied the intelligence needed for the attack on the Saudi vessel.

Since 2017 intelligence sources have gathered that Iran has turned the naval arena into its primary smuggling route due to sanctions imposed on Tehran. A vessel would leave Iran and rendezvous with a ship that has disabled its transponder, and transfer its cargo, as part of the attempt to bypass sanctions.

Militaries in the area have raided many ships used to smuggle goods, which have been converted to civilian ships. In some cases, long-range missiles were found, drones, anti-missile batteries, explosives, sea mines and other weaponry destined for the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syrian militias and even to Hamas in Gaza.

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