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Suspected Iran spy ship sails home amid Israel attack threats

WorldSuspected Iran spy ship sails home amid Israel attack threats

A suspected Iranian spy ship appears to be sailing home after nearly three years at sea — a move that comes as the world awaits Israel’s response to Tehran’s retaliatory attack.

The return of the MV Behshad, a cargo ship that U.S. analysts and officials suspect may have provided information and targeting assistance to Houthi rebels in the Red Sea, would remove one possible high-profile target for any Israeli strikes.

Iran has previously warned against targeting the ship, and in a sign of the heightened tensions over possible Israeli targets, a senior Iranian commander warned Thursday that the country could review its nuclear doctrine. 

“If Israel wants to use the threat of attacking nuclear centers to put pressure on Iran, it is likely that the nuclear doctrine and policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran will be reviewed and the considerations announced previously will be canceled,” Ahmad Haghtalab, the IRGC commander in charge of nuclear security, was quoted as saying by the country’s semiofficial Tasnim news agency.

Sailing home

The Behshad crossed from the Arabian Gulf into the Persian Gulf early Thursday morning, and was due to arrive later in the evening at the port of Bandar Abbas on Iran’s southern coast, according to ship tracking website MarineTraffic.com. Data provided to the website via the automated identification system of the Behshad said that it had been at sea since June 18, 2021.

NBC News previously reported that the Behshad had spent a long time at sea, lingering in almost the same spot in the Red Sea between Yemen and Eritrea since January 2023. By Jan. 11 of this year, it had moved to near the entrance to the Red Sea, a choke point known as the Bab al-Mandeb strait — or “the Gate of Grief” — according to the ship tracker.

Later, in February, the Behshad traveled south into the Gulf of Aden and docked off the coast of a Chinese military base in Djibouti, east Africa. The Behshad could be seen there on ship tracking websites until the end of March, when it then disappeared from view. It did not reappear until early April, this time sailing close to the coast of Iran in the Gulf of Oman, before passing through the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday, the ship tracking site showed.

Bloomberg News first reported the ship’s return.

The Iranian ship had provided electronic intelligence to the Yemen-based Houthis, enabling them to spot and target vessels in the Red Sea region, according to a U.S. official, a U.S. congressional aide with knowledge of the matter and a Middle Eastern official.

Analysis by NBC News and several other experts showed that the Behshad was several miles away as Houthi rebels carried out a number of attacks on commercial vessels that created ship diversions and delays in the global supply chain.

On April 7 Houthi leaders said they had targeted British and U.S. ships in the Red Sea, while in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean it had attacked two Israeli vessels heading to port in Israel.

The Iranian military warned against any strikes on the Behshad in a video posted to Telegram in February, with a narrator describing the ship as a “floating armory,” and saying that any aggression towards the ship would “jeopardize international maritime routes [and] security.”

The Behshad’s return home comes as Israel weighs how to respond to Iran’s launching of more than 300 drones and missiles at the country over the weekend, which Tehran said was in response to the April 1 bombing of an Iranian consular building in Damascus that killed two generals and five officers in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The U.S. and its allies have been urging Israel not to escalate further, hoping to avoid all-out war in the region. If Israel does respond militarily, it could target Iran itself or choose a less direct option that may prevent the situation from spiraling. 

“The ship is likely viewed as one of the targets Israel may hit in the future,” said Michael Horowitz, the head of intelligence at Le Beck International, a security and risk management consultancy, in a post on X.

The Behshad has been on its current deployment since 2021, replacing the MV Saviz, another cargo ship suspected of being used by the IRGC and which was anchored for years off the coast of Yemen before it was damaged in an attack Iran alleged was carried out by Israel.

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