Defence minister says Israel has identified Iranian targets to attack if Tehran continues ‘nuclear escalation’.
An Iranian cargo ship believed to be a base for the paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and anchored for years in the Red Sea off Yemen has been attacked.
Iran’s foreign ministry on Wednesday confirmed the attack, saying the MV Saviz was hit with an unknown explosion that caused “minor damage” around 6am local time in the Red Sea on Tuesday, close to the shores of Djibouti.
Foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the Saviz is a non-military vessel formally registered with the International Maritime Organisation that acts as Iran’s “logistic station” in the Red Sea, providing anti-piracy services.
“Fortunately no fatalities were incurred due to the incident, and technical evaluations on how the incident occurred and its origins are under way,” he said.
The attack came as Iran and world powers sat down in Vienna for the first talks about the US potentially rejoining Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal, showing that challenges ahead do not rest merely in those negotiations.
The ship’s long presence in the region, repeatedly criticised by Saudi Arabia, comes as the West and United Nations experts say Iran has provided arms and support to Yemen’s Houthi rebels amid that country’s years-long war.
Iran denies arming the Houthis, but components found in the rebels’ weaponry link back to Tehran.
In a state TV statement, an Iranian anchor cited a New York Times story published Wednesday that quoted an anonymous US official saying Israel warned the US about a planned attack on the vessel.
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.”
On Wednesday, the United Nations called for “maximum restraint”.
“Although the circumstances around the incident remain unclear, we wish to underscore the importance for the concerned parties … to exercise maximum restraint and refrain from taking any escalatory actions and, in particular, to respect their obligations under international law,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Al Arabiya TV cited unnamed sources as saying the vessel was attacked off the coast of Eritrea and was affiliated with the IRGC, but provided no evidence to support the assertion.
There was no official Iranian reaction to the incident.
It was the latest in a reported series of attacks on Israeli and Iranian-owned ships since late February in which the two arch-enemies accused each other of responsibility.
The incidents have occurred since US President Joe Biden took office in January with a commitment to rejoin world powers’ 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.
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 US called the talks “constructive”.
Israeli officials declined to comment on Tuesday’s reported attack on the Iranian ship.
Earlier in the day, before news broke about the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in comments to lawmakers of his right-wing Likud party, said there should be no return to the “dangerous” nuclear accord.
“In parallel we must continue to fend off Iranian belligerence in our region,” he added.
“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.”
The Biden administration is not anticipating any changes on Iran policy amid the negotiations over reinstating the nuclear deal, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Tuesday.
There have been three other reported attacks on Iranian or Israeli-owned ships since February 25.
On March 25 a cargo ship owned by an Israeli company was damaged by a missile in the Arabian Sea in what was suspected to be an Iranian attack, according to a senior Israeli security official. The ship was able to continue its journey, he said.
Two weeks previously, Iranian state media quoted an Iranian investigator as saying Israel was highly likely to have been behind an explosion that caused a small fire on an Iranian container ship in the Mediterranean.
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz declined to comment directly at the time but said Iran regularly sent weapons to its proxies in the region.
On February 26, Netanyahu blamed Iran for an explosion on board an Israeli-owned vehicle-carrier ship in the Gulf of Oman. A US official said the blast ripped holes in both sides of its hull and an Israeli official said limpet mines were used. Iran denied responsibility.
Al Jazeera’s Maziar Motamedi in Tehran contributed to this report