In an apparent escalation of the ongoing maritime battle between Israel and Iran, Israeli forces reportedly attacked an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ship in the Red Sea, causing an explosion.
According to The New York Times, it is the first such attack on an Iranian military vessel. The attack comes as indirect talks hoping to bring the US and Iran back to the 2015 nuclear deal open in Vienna.
The ship was hit by a limpet mine, Iran’s Tasnim news agency said.
The Saviz suffered an explosion early on Tuesday morning, another in a string of mysterious blasts that have plagued Iranian and Israeli vessels for years, and especially in recent months.
A US official said Washington was informed of the operation by the Israelis, who claimed responsibility and said it came in response to Iranian attacks on Israeli vessels, The Times reported. The Revolutionary Guard also pointed a finger at Israel on social media.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry, however, was tight-mouthed about who Tehran believes was behind the attack. “The Iranian merchant ship Saviz sustained minor damage in the Red Sea off the coast of Djibouti at around 6 am local time on April 6, 2021, due to an explosion, the cause of which is being investigated,” the ministry’s spokesmen said on Wednesday.
The statement called the vessel “the nonmilitary Saviz ship” but also said that it “had been stationed in the Red Sea region and the Gulf of Aden in order to ensure maritime security along shipping lanes and to counter pirates.” No lives were lost in the attack, according to the statement.
The Saviz has been station in the Red Sea since 2009, according to a report by the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy in West Point. The 2018 report called it “the current Iranian ‘mother ship,” adding that many crew members “wear Iranian naval uniforms, despite the fact that the ship is registered as a civilian vessel.” The ship is furnished with “signals intelligence domes and antennae,” according to the report.
A 2020 paper from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy classified the Saviz as “an intelligence/armory ship.”
Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Channel 12 News that “Israel has to continue to defend itself; we never take a break.” Defensive measures are not enough, “and we must carry out offensive operations as well, and will do that when appropriate,” he said.
The attack came on the same day the indirect talks between the US and Iran began in an attempt to bring both countries into compliance with the Iran nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – which the US left in 2018 under President Donald Trump. Attempts to revive the agreement have so far failed to bear fruit, but both sides described the first step taken in Vienna as useful and constructive.
Israel adamantly opposes the JCPOA.
Col. (res.) Eldad Shavit, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and an expert on Middle East security and US-Israel relations, does not connect the two events.
Assuming that Israel is actually behind the attack, he told The Media Line, “I don’t think that Israel did it exactly on the same day because the talks were going on, but because it had an opportunity, and you don’t always get such an opportunity. You can’t always assume that everything is connected to everything.
“First and foremost, this is an attempt to send a message to the Iranians,” he said, as part of the maritime conflict between the countries. While the Americans may not be appreciative of the operation and its timing, they were not the intended recipients of its message. Shavit also doubts that this will have any effect on the Vienna talks.
“I don’t know if they [the negotiations] will lead to a breakthrough, but it sounds positive and I don’t think one will influence the other,” he said.
The expert suggested that Israel informed the US of the attack because “it’s a new administration and Israel wants to be more careful.” However, that is only speculation, he stressed.
Israeli operations may affect US-Israel relations for the worse if progress with the Iranians is made, and Israel then carry out military operations, “which the Americans will understand as intending to sabotage the return to the agreement – that, then, could certainly be problematic,” Shavit said.
Omer Dostri is a strategy and national security expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security who has researched Iran’s maritime activity. He believes Israel did mean to send a message to the US via the operation. However, he also sees it as not directly connected to the nuclear negotiations.
“I see a message to the US here, that Israel will not allow Iranian operations [i.e., attacks] to continue,” Dostri told The Media Line.
“On the one hand, Israel’s message to the US is, ‘Yes, we will retaliate,’ but on the other hand, ‘we won’t interrupt’” American efforts to return to the agreement with the Iranians.
This leads Dostri to believe the two allies coordinated surrounding the attack. According to the Times’ source, Israeli forces may have waited for the American aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower to distance itself from the Saviz before attacking.
“It certainly seems reasonable to me that there was close coordination between the sides, in light of the fact that Israel knows very well that it is important for the Americans to avoid an altercation with the Iranians at present,” Dostri said.
“I think that Israel has better platforms and options to relate messages regarding” the Iran nuclear deal “than the maritime conflict,” he added.
Most recently, a missile attack on the Israeli-owned container ship Lori near Oman on March 25 was attributed to Tehran. A month earlier to the day, a mine damaged another Israeli cargo vessel, the MV Helios Ray, in the Gulf of Oman.
Iranian ships have also experienced explosions that have been blamed on Israel, and The Wall Street Journal revealed on March 11 that Israel had attacked at least a dozen Iranians vessels since 2019. This latest Israeli operation is intended to send a warning to the Iranians to cease and desist, Dostri said.
While Tuesday’s attack has been called an escalation because of the military role of the ship, he believes the main indicator that things may be intensifying is Israel’s publication of the event by notifying the US.
“This is an attempt by Israel to raise the bar and bring it out to the open. A kind of message to the Iranians; we tried to dissuade you from continuing with these operations quietly, and you wouldn’t relent, so we are continuing with military responses and we are taking it up a notch and publicizing it.”
The attack on a military ship, however, is not a sign of escalation, Dostri said, adding that neither side sees a categorical difference between an intelligence vessel and one carrying oil or weapons to Syria, which Israel has reportedly attacked on more than one occasion.
Dostri believes Tuesday’s operation will not be enough to bring the cycle of attacks to an end. The Iranians wanted to create a situation in which they can “harass Israel, limit it, hurt it, nibble away at its security and image,” he said, and in that, they have succeeded.
The current rules governing the exchanges, limiting them to minor attacks, are to Iran’s liking, Dostri said, and he does not think it will treat Tuesday’s event differently from previous attacks.
Only a wider, more significant operation by Israel will send a clear message to Tehran and bring the maritime conflict to an end, he said.