Iran acknowledges attack on ship thought to be used as military base

An Iranian cargo ship believed to be a base for the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and anchored for years in the Red Sea off Yemen has been attacked, Iranian state television has acknowledged.

The state TV acknowledgment, citing foreign media, marks the first Iranian comment on the mysterious incident on Tuesday involving the MV Saviz, suspected to have been carried out by Israel.

The attack came as Iran and world powers sat down in Vienna for the first talks about the US potentially rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal.

The ship’s long presence in the region has been repeatedly criticised by Saudi Arabia. The west and UN experts say Iran has provided arms and support to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Iran denies arming the Houthis, though components found in the rebels’ weaponry link back to Tehran.

Iran previously described the Saviz as aiding in “anti-piracy” efforts in the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a crucial choke point in international shipping.

In the state TV statement, 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.

Israeli officials declined to comment about the incident, as did the Saviz’s owner.

Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency, believed to be close to the Guard, reported the attack late on Tuesday, saying explosives planted on the hull of the Saviz had exploded. It did not blame anyone for the attack and said Iranian officials would probably offer more information in the coming days.

In a statement, the US military’s central command only said it was “aware of media reporting of an incident involving the Saviz in the Red Sea”.

“We can confirm that no US forces were involved in the incident,” the command said. “We have no additional information to provide.”

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 drifted off the Dahlak archipelago, a chain of islands off the coast of nearby Eritrea in the Red Sea. It probably received supply replenishments and switched crew via passing Iranian vessels using the waterway.

Briefing materials from the Saudi military earlier obtained by the AP showed men on the vessel dressed in military-style fatigues and a variety of antennas on the vessel that the Saudi government 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 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.

Amid the wider tensions between the US and Iran, a series of mysterious blasts have targeted ships in the region, including some the US navy blamed on Iran. Among the ships damaged recently was an Israeli-owned car carrier in an attack that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, blamed on Iran. Another was an Iranian cargo ship in the Mediterranean.

Iran also has 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 killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the country’s military nuclear programme two decades ago.

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