Shadow War: Iran, Israel Confrontation In International Waters Take Dangerous Turn

Flooded engine room of the Iranian ship MV Saviz after being attacked in Red Sea off Yemen. (AP)

Israeli special forces are believed to have been behind an attack on a ship used by Iranian commandos in the Red Sea, escalating an undeclared maritime war between the two nations.

Iranian officials confirmed that the MV Saviz was targeted on Tuesday morning, after reports emerged that the ship had suffered damage caused by a limpet mine.

In early March, after an Israel-owned ship was damaged by limpet mines in the Gulf of Oman, The Times of Israel wrote that “Israel could send its own message by targeting an Iranian ship in the Red Sea, such as the Saviz.”

Last Tuesday, Israel is believed to have done just that, attacking that very Iranian vessel, with mines of its own, according to reports.

As detailed in that story a month ago, “since 2017, the Saudis have alleged the Saviz served as a maritime base and weapons transshipment point for the [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps].”

A suspicious boat off the stern of the Iranian ship ‘Saviz’ in the Red Sea in 2018. MV Saviz was directly involve in the shipments of weapons and drugs to Syria, Libya and Lebanon. (Al Arabiya video screenshot/File)

In many ways, the Saviz was the perfect target. After the covert maritime struggle between Israel and Iran burst into the open this year, with Tehran displaying new audaciousness in its attacks on Israeli-owned vessels, Israel had to respond in a way that would send a clear message.

But in so doing, Israel risks getting in a fight in which it has some glaring vulnerabilities. It also runs the danger of irritating a US administration intent on restarting nuclear talks with Iran, negotiations that could be scuppered, should the struggle between Iran and its regional foes heat up.

Maritime shipping

Strange things have been happening at sea recently. Earlier this year an Israeli-owned cargo ship, the MV Helios, was badly damaged while transiting the Gulf of Oman. Two large holes were ripped in its hull and Israel swiftly blamed Iran’s IRGC. Iran denied any involvement.

Israeli-owned cargo ship Helios Ray, partially damaged by an explosion caused by Iranian attack, is seen after it anchored in Dubai, UAE [Ali Haider/EPA]

In April the Saviz, an Iranian vessel anchored in the southern Red Sea, suffered damage to its hull believed to have been caused by limpet mines. Israel and the Saudi-led Coalition in nearby Yemen believe the Saviz has been serving as a logistic “mothership” for Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen. Speedboats, machine-guns and sophisticated communication aerials have been spotted onboard but Iran says it is there for peaceful, legitimate purposes and blames Israel for the attack.

US media reports say that over the past 18 months Israeli forces have targeted at least 12 ships bound for Syria, carrying Iranian oil and military supplies.

The capture of Klos C Israeli Navy

The ship was carrying Syrian missiles, which have range of 100-200 kilometers. According to Israeli reports, dozens of rockets discovered onboard the vessel were destined for Palestine.

An Israeli Navy boat escorts the cargo vessel Klos C (left) into the Israeli port of Eilat. (Flash90)

Israel Defense Forces officer claimed the weaponry originated in Syria, was transported from Syria to Iran, from Iran it was shipped to Iraq and there boarded onto the KLOS C. The shipment was to be discharged in Port Sudan and then had to be forwarded to Gaza by land. The intercepted cargo vessel was towed to Eilat.

Route of Klos C

Israel Defense Forces officer claimed the weaponry originated in Syria, was transported from Syria to Iran, from Iran it was shipped to Iraq and there boarded onto the KLOS C. The shipment was to be discharged in Port Sudan and then had to be forwarded to Gaza by land. The intercepted cargo vessel was towed to Eilat.

The Klos C is a Marshall Islands-owned, Panamanian-registered merchant cargo ship. The Klos C was built in 1996, in Saint Petersburg, Russia by the shipbuilders Severnaya Verf.

The IRGC mothership

The Saviz, anchored in international waters just off Eritrea’s Dahlak archipelago, lay vulnerable and relatively close to Israel. In that regard, it was an obvious choice as a target.

This October 1, 2020, satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows the Iranian cargo ship MV Saviz in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

The vessel – formerly known as the Azalea, Iran Ocean Candle, Lantana, and Ocean Candle — was initially put under sanctions by the US government, but was removed from the list of designated vessels on January 16, 2016, the day the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal went into effect. In April 2020, the Treasury Department announced that the Saviz was back on the list.

The “mothership,” as described in a Washington Institute report, came to public attention in 2017, when the Saudi-led Arab Coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen released a dossier showing uniformed personnel on the ostensibly civilian vessel. Coalition spokesman Col. Turki Al-Maliki accused the Saviz of supporting Houthi naval attacks. In 2018, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya channel aired footage of the ship, as well as Boston Whaler-type speedboats on deck, typically used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy.

A suspicious boat off the stern of the Iranian ship ‘Saviz’ in the Red Sea in 2018. (Al Arabiya video screenshot/File)

In early March, after an Israel-owned ship was damaged by limpet mines in the Gulf of Oman, The Times of Israel wrote that “Israel could send its own message by targeting an Iranian ship in the Red Sea, such as the Saviz.”

Last Tuesday, Israel is believed to have done just that, attacking that very Iranian vessel, with mines of its own, according to reports.

As detailed in that story a month ago, “since 2017, the Saudis have alleged the Saviz served as a maritime base and weapons transhipment point for the [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps]. In many ways, the Saviz was the perfect target. After the covert maritime struggle between Israel and Iran burst into the open this year, with Tehran displaying new audaciousness in its attacks on Israeli-owned vessels, Israel had to respond in a way that would send a clear message.

But in so doing, Israel risks getting in a fight in which it has some glaring vulnerabilities. It also runs the danger of irritating a US administration intent on restarting nuclear talks with Iran, negotiations that could be scuppered, should the struggle between Iran and its regional foes heat up.

The IRGC mothership

The Saviz, anchored in international waters just off Eritrea’s Dahlak archipelago, lay vulnerable and relatively close to Israel. In that regard, it was an obvious choice as a target.

This October 1, 2020, satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows the Iranian cargo ship MV Saviz in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

The vessel – formerly known as the Azalea, Iran Ocean Candle, Lantana, and Ocean Candle — was initially put under sanctions by the US government, but was removed from the list of designated vessels on January 16, 2016, the day the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal went into effect. In April 2020, the Treasury Department announced that the Saviz was back on the list.

The “mothership,” as described in a Washington Institute report, came to public attention in 2017, when the Saudi-led Arab Coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen released a dossier showing uniformed personnel on the ostensibly civilian vessel. Coalition spokesman Col. Turki Al-Maliki accused the Saviz of supporting Houthi naval attacks. In 2018, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya channel aired footage of the ship, as well as Boston Whaler-type speedboats on deck, typically used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy.

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“It has been equipped with four 50-caliber machine guns that have been hidden by the ships’ crew…” alleges the report. “It also has a satellite and highly-developed military communications system.” Al Arabiya cameras captured one of the speedboats transferring equipment from a passing Iranian ship to the Saviz.

The ship drew the ire of locals as well. In November 2018, fishermen in the Yemeni city of Taiz staged a protest against the Saviz, calling it a threat to their well-being, according to local reports.

The vessel has been anchored a few miles from the narrow Bab al-Mandeb straits at the southern end of the Red Sea since 2017, and has barely moved since then, according to reports based on maritime tracking technology.

“It’s more like a platform, a floating island, a barge, than a ship,” said Steffan Watkins, a private open-source defense researcher based in Canada.

Based on its location, the Saviz can keep a close eye on ships – including Israeli vessels – sailing through the key shipping lane, and is also well-positioned to play a supporting role in attacks on tankers, allegedly by Iranian proxies, that have taken place in the area.

The Saviz certainly isn’t the only ship lurking around the Bab al-Mandeb.

“That area has a lot of ships that drop anchor and hang out,” said Watkins, especially private military company vessels that accompany cargo ships through the dangerous waters.

Attack on MV Saviz, a message to Tehran

An attack this week on an Iranian cargo ship that is said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen has escalated a yearslong shadow war in Mideast waters. The development comes just as world powers are negotiating over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal. Despite its rhetorical defiance, Iran’s actions betray an admission of inability to engage Israel a in a direct confrontation, naval or otherwise.

The assault on the MV Saviz on Tuesday appears to have caused the most-extensive damage yet in this shadow war, seemingly between Iran and Israel — and one that could further escalate regional tensions. Attacks and counterattacks between the two nations could spin out of control.

An Iranian military vessel stationed in the Red Sea was damaged by an apparent Israeli mine attack on Tuesday in an escalation of the shadowy naval skirmishing that has characterized the two adversaries’ exchanges in recent years.

The damage to the vessel, which the Iranian news media identified as the Saviz, came as progress was reported on the first day of talks to revive American participation in the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and major world powers. Israel, which regards Iran as its most potent foe, strongly opposes a restoration of that agreement, which was abandoned by the Trump administration three years ago.

Several Iranian news outlets showed images of flames and smoke billowing from a stricken vessel in the Red Sea, but the full extent of the damage or any casualties was unclear.

The Saviz, technically classified as a cargo ship, was the first vessel deployed for military use that is known to have been attacked in the Israeli-Iranian skirmishes.

A social media account of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps said the vessel had been deployed in the Red Sea for some time to combat pirates. The Tasnim news agency, the media outlet of the Revolutionary Guards, said the Saviz had been damaged by a mine that was attached to the vessel.

There was no official Iranian confirmation of the attack as of Tuesday night, but several Telegram social media channels operated by members of the Revolutionary Guards blamed Israel for the explosion.

Israeli officials had not commented as of Tuesday night, and as a matter of policy they seldom confirm or deny responsibility for actions taken against Iran. But an American official said the Israelis had notified the United States that its forces had struck the vessel at about 7:30 a.m. local time.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private intelligence communications, said that the Israelis had called the attack a retaliation for earlier Iranian strikes on Israeli vessels, and that the Saviz had been damaged below the water line. The vessel’s precise location in the Red Sea was not immediately clear.

The skirmishes have gone on for two years but have previously involved a different sort of target. Since 2019, Israel has attacked commercial ships carrying Iranian oil and weapons through the eastern Mediterranean and Red Seas, a new maritime front in a regional shadow war that had previously played out by land and air.

The American official said it was possible that the attack had been delayed to allow the Dwight D. Eisenhower, an American aircraft carrier in the area, to put some distance between itself and the Saviz. The Eisenhower was about 200 miles away when the Saviz was hit, the official said.

The U.S. Naval Institute published a report in October 2020 that asserted the Saviz was a covert military ship operated by the Revolutionary Guards. The report said that uniformed men were present onboard and that a boat type used by the Revolutionary Guards, with a hull similar to a Boston Whaler, was on the ship’s deck.

Iran has engaged in its own clandestine attacks. The last one was reported on March 25, when an Israeli-owned container ship, the Lori, was hit by an Iranian missile in the Arabian Sea, an Israeli official said. No casualties or significant damage were reported.

The Israeli campaign is part of Israel’s effort to curb Iran’s military influence in the Middle East and stymie Iranian efforts to circumvent American sanctions on its oil industry.

Iran Nuclear Deal

President Joe Biden wants to bring the US back into the deal but only if Iran returns to full compliance. Iran is basically saying: “No, we don’t trust you, you go first. We will comply fully once sanctions are lifted.”

Natanz is heavily protected, with its most sensitive machinery housed deep underground

Israel does not believe Iran’s repeated assertions that its nuclear programme is a purely peaceful civil one. Israel is convinced that Iran is secretly working towards developing a nuclear warhead and the means to deliver it with a ballistic missile.

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu met US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday

To try to break this deadlock, negotiators from several countries are meeting in Vienna. But Israel doesn’t believe the nuclear deal is worth reviving in its current form. Dr Michael Stephens, a Middle East analyst with the London thinktank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says recent Israeli actions are a deliberate attempt to sabotage the nuclear negotiations.

“The Israelis are unilaterally trying to derail the Iranian nuclear programme, in a way which, while impressive in terms of technical capacity, is a risky game. First, these Israeli efforts could undermine the US negotiating position as it seeks to re-enter the nuclear deal with Iran.

“But secondly the Iranians may look to counter, through asymmetric attacks against Israeli interests worldwide. Israel has proved it can disrupt the Iranian programme, but at what cost?”

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