A U.S. official said that Israel notified the United States that its forces had struck an Iranian vessel, calling it "a retaliatory" attack for earlier Iranian strikes on Israeli vessels, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said "the Israelis had notified the United States that its forces had struck the vessel at about 7:30 A.M. local time." The Israelis said that the ship was damaged below the water line, the official stated in the Times report.
Iran's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that an Iranian vessel, the Saviz, had been targeted in the Red Sea, a day after media reports that the ship had been attacked with limpet mines.
"The explosion occurred on Tuesday morning near the Djibouti coast and caused minor damage with no casualties. The vessel was a civilian ship stationed there to secure the region against pirates," Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said.
"The issue is under investigation."
This came after Al Arabiya TV reported on Tuesday that an Iranian spy ship came under Israeli attack in the Red Sea, quoting unnamed sources. The semi-official Iranian Tasnim news agency said the vessel was targeted by a limpet mine.
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The Saudi-owned news channel cited the sources as saying the vessel was attacked off the coast of Eritrea by "Israeli commando" forces, and that the vessel was affiliated with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, but provided no evidence to support the assertion.
According to reports, the Saviz was used by Iran as a command and control 'mothership', loitering over the past several years in the Red Sea, between Yemen and Eritrea. With speed boats and intelligence gathering and surveillance systems, the ship was a floating base for Iranian operations in Yemen and Africa.
There was no comment from Israeli officials regarding the report as of early Wednesday morning, while Iranian state TV acknowledged the attack.
Earlier, U.S. officials had told Reuters, on the condition of anonymity, that the United States did not carry out the attack.
This is the latest in a series of reported attacks on Israeli- and Iranian-owned cargo ships since late February. Dozens of attacks on Iranian ships in the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea have been attributed to Israel. Some of these strikes targeted oil shipments from Iran to Syria; others were linked to Iranian attempts to smuggle weapons to its proxies in Syria and Lebanon. Attacks on Israeli ships have been attributed to Tehran.
Saudi state-owned Al-Hadath TV reported the attack was “likely” an Israeli operation, citing an unnamed source. The report added that the ship sustained “major” damage, but had not been sunk.
Tasnim identified the ship as the Saviz, an intelligence reconnaissance vessel with known links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that is formally listed as a cargo ship. The report said Israeli forces affixed the mine to the side of the ship.
"The Iranian vessel Saviz has been stationed in the Red Sea for the past few years to support Iranian commandos sent on commercial vessel (anti-piracy) escort missions," Tasnim reported.
The vessel was called an "Iranian mothership" in a July 2018 analysis from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In 2019, Saudi Arabia said it evacuated an Iranian crew member from the “hostile” ship off the coast of Yemen.
Briefing materials from the Saudi military obtained by The Associated Press at the time showed men on the vessel dressed in camouflaged military-style fatigues, as well as small boats capable of ferrying cargo to the Yemeni coast.
Negotiations power on
Israeli-Iranian naval incidents have occurred since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January. Biden has expressed a commitment to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran – abandoned by his predecessor Donald Trump in a move welcomed by Israel – if Tehran returns to full compliance with the deal.
Earlier Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told lawmakers from his Likud party that there should be no return to the "dangerous" 2015 nuclear accord, adding: "In parallel we must continue to fend off Iranian belligerence in our region. And this threat is no theoretical matter. I'm not uttering it rhetorically. We must take action in the face of the fanatical regime in Iran, which simply threatens to wipe us off the face of the earth."
Iran and the United States on Tuesday launched indirect talks in Vienna that included the other powers on ways to revive the deal. Both Iran and the United States called the talks "constructive."
If Israel is responsible for the latest attack, it signals an insistence from Jerusalem to continue waging the maritime campaign against Iran, despite potential reprisals from Tehran and fears that it can lead to a severe escalation between the two countries. In the background are the talks in Vienna Tuesday, in which envoys from Russia, China, Germany, France, Britain and Iran discussed the nuclear deal.
Two weeks ago, Channel 12 news reported that an Iranian missile hit an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Arabian Sea. The ship was making its way from Tanzania to India at the time.
In February, a ship owned by an Israeli firm, the MV HELIOS RAY, was hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman. Israel estimated that the explosion was a targeted attempt against an Israeli-owned ship by Iran.
Iran denied involvement at the time. "We strongly reject this accusation," Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Tehran.
An investigation by Haaretz published last month shows that Israel and Iran have been waging economic warfare for the past two-and-a-half years. In practice, it appears that Israel struck several dozen Iranian oil tankers, which caused Iran cumulative damage of billions of dollars, amid a high rate of success in disrupting its shipping.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.