Israeli forces were responsible for striking an Iranian ship in the Red Sea, according to a report in The New York Times, escalating tensions between Iran and Israel just as the U.S. and Iran have reopened indirect talks to revive the controversial 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The Iranian cargo ship, Saviz, is believed to be affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, a U.S. official told the newspaper.
The Israeli military strike was reportedly a retaliation for previous Iranian strikes on Israeli vessels. While officially a civilian cargo ship, Saviz is reportedly a covert intelligence-gathering vessel affiliated with Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The candid New York Times report revealed that the Israeli strike was a continuation of the high-stake tit for tat between Iran and Israel that has been escalating during recent months. In February and March, two civilian Israeli-owned vessels, including the MV Helios Ray, were reportedly damaged by Iranian missiles.
“The official, who spoke on 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 report stated.
The military strike was reportedly carried out by Israeli elite naval commandos, most likely by Shayetet 13, Israel’s equivalent of the U.S. Navy Seals.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz avoided confirming on Wednesday whether Israel had indeed carried out a military strike on the Iranian ship. However, he stressed the need for Israel to defend itself against multiple threats.
“The State of Israel must defend itself. Every place we find an operational challenge or operational need, we will continue to act,” Gantz said.
Gantz, who was attending a ceremony marking 10 years since the inception of Israel’s advanced Iron Dome missile defense system, explicitly named Iran as a major threat to Israeli security.
“We are preparing ourselves at this time on numerous fronts: at our southern and northern borders, as well as vis-à-vis the threats that Iran is presenting, whether directly or indirectly via its proxies in the Middle East.”
In a veiled warning to the Iranian regime, Gantz declared that Israel has multiple offensive capabilities ready to be operational around the clock.
“To our enemies I want to say: We are here today marking 10 years of active service of the Iron Dome, but this isn’t the only system we have,” he said. “We have offensive capabilities that operate 24/7, 365 days a year. They are ready for use on any front, at any range and for any action that the IDF needs.”
The timing of the Israeli retaliatory strike raises speculations on whether it could be connected to Washington’s decision to join multilateral talks in the Austrian capital Vienna to revive the Iranian nuclear deal, which former President Barack Obama joined in 2015.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a vocal opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, arguing it paves the path towards Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. However, it is unclear whether a strike on an Iranian intelligence vessel in the Red Sea could torpedo the nuclear talks in Austria. Both Washington and Tehran have signalled they are interested in renewing talks on the nuclear deal that the Trump administration left in 2018.
Netanyahu stressed the danger of reviving the Iranian nuclear deal in a speech on Tuesday.
“We cannot go back to the dangerous nuclear plan, because a nuclear Iran is an existential threat and a very big threat to the security of the whole world,” Netanyahu said.
Speaking a day ahead of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, Netanyahu stressed that the Jewish state will defend itself against genocidal threats.
“We must act against the fanatical regime in Iran that is simply threatening to erase us from the earth,” he said. “We will always know to defend ourselves by ourselves from those who seek to kill us.”