04 February 2024

Iran warns against attack on suspected spy ships after new air strikes in Yemen

04 February 2024

Iran has issued a warning to the US over potentially targeting two cargo ships in the Middle East long suspected of serving as forwarding operating bases for Iranian commandos, just after America and Britain launched a massive air strike campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The statement from Iran on the Behshad and Saviz ships appeared to signal Tehran’s growing unease over the US strikes in recent days in Iraq, Syria and Yemen targeting militias backed by the Islamic Republic.

Those attacks, themselves a retaliatory campaign for the killing of three US soldiers and wounding of dozens of others in Jordan, all stem back to Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which has escalated tensions across the wider Middle East and raised fears about a regional conflict breaking out.

The Yemen strikes overnight into Sunday struck across six provinces of Yemen held by the Houthi rebels, including in the capital Sanaa.

The Houthis gave no assessment of the damage but the US described hitting underground missile arsenals, launch sites and helicopters used by the rebels.

Houthi military spokesman Brig Gen Yahya Saree said: “These attacks will not discourage Yemeni forces and the nation from maintaining their support for Palestinians in the face of the Zionist occupation and crimes.

“The aggressors’ air strikes will not go unanswered.”

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin warned the Houthis after the strikes that “they will continue to bear further consequences if they do not end their illegal attacks on international shipping and naval vessels”.

That message was echoed by British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, who said: “The Houthi attacks must stop.”

US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said: “We are prepared to deal with anything that any group or any country tries to come at us with and the president has been clear that we will continue to respond to threats that American forces face as we go forward.”

The Behshad and Saviz are registered as commercial cargo ships with a Tehran-based company the US Treasury has sanctioned as a front for the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines.

The Saviz, then later the Behshad, have loitered for years in the Red Sea off Yemen, suspected of serving as spy positions for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia described the Saviz as a maritime base and weapons transhipment point for the Guard, staffed by men in military fatigues. Footage aired by Saudi-owned television channels showed the vessel armed with what appeared to be a covered machine gun bolted to the ship’s deck.

In the video statement on Sunday by the Iran’s regular army, a narrator for the first time described the vessels as “floating armories”.

The narrator described the Behshad as aiding an Iranian mission to “counteract piracy in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden”. However, Iran is not publicly known to have taken part in any of the recent campaigns against rising Somali piracy in the region off the back of the Houthi attacks.

Just before the new campaign of US air strikes began, the Behshad travelled south into the Gulf of Aden. It is now docked in Djibouti in East Africa, just off the coast from a Chinese military base in the country.

The statement ends with a warning overlaid with a montage of footage of US warships and an American flag.

“Those engaging in terrorist activities against Behshad or similar vessels jeopardise international maritime routes, security and assume global responsibility for potential future international risks,” the video said.

The US Navy’s Middle East-based 5th Fleet did not immediately respond to a request for comment over the threat.

The Saviz, which is now in the Indian Ocean near where the US alleges Iranian drone attacks have recently targeted shipping, has come under attack before. In 2021, a likely limpet mine explosion blew a hole through the hull of the Saviz, forcing Iran to bring the ship home.

That attack, suspected to have been carried out by Israel, is part of a wider shadow war between Tehran and Israel after the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal.

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