The U.S. Navy’s Starett guided-missile destroyer halted a Panamanian-flagged freighter, Saisaban, in the Red Sea on April 1, 2015 and searched it for Iranian weaponry headed to the Yemeni Houthis, The Wall Street Journal reported on April 12.1 The Navy was reportedly searching for ground-to-air missiles, materiel that could significantly escalate the fighting between the Houthi insurgents and the Saudi-led air coalition bombing and strafing the Iranian-supported Shiite rebels.
The Starett found nothing on the commercial freighter and probably for good reasons. Ironically, Israel’s navy may be responsible.
In recent years, the Israeli navy, backed by hard intelligence, has accumulated a long record2 of intercepting Iranian weapons heading to Hamas and Hizbullah on commercial vessels. In the case of the Saisaban, there was probably no specific intelligence, an American naval expert explained. “Ships will be searched based on operating profile and proximity to Yemen.”
“Navigation in Yemen’s territorial waters has been banned,” Marine News reported on April 14, 2015, “and ships are not allowed into Yemen unless inspected and approval by the Saudi-led coalition forces.”3
Israel’s interdiction of arms shipments on commercial vessels include:
- In May 2001, Israel’s navy captured the Lebanese Santorini in the Mediterranean carrying 40 tons of Syrian weapons from Lebanon to Gaza.
- The Karine A, a Palestinian Authority-owned ship, was captured by the IDF in the Red Sea in January 2002 with 50 tons of Iranian arms aboard.
- In November 2009, the Israeli navy captured the Antigua-flagged Francop in the Mediterranean with 320 tons of rockets, shells and ammunition from Iran destined for Hizbullah.
- In March 2011 the Victoria was intercepted by Israel in the Mediterranean with 50 tons of Iranian weapons, including anti-ship missiles, headed for Hamas terrorists in Gaza. The ship was Liberian-flagged.
- The Klos C was captured in the Red Sea by Israel in March 2014. Loaded with long-range ground-to-ground missiles, mortars, and two million kilograms of cement, the Panamanian-flagged boat’s cargo was traced back to Syria and Iran. The Klos C was believed to have been headed to Sudan where its cargo would be smuggled through Egypt and the Sinai to Hamas in Gaza.
Iran’s attempts to ship weaponry on commercial ships appear to be a large failure. Perhaps to compensate, the Iranian Republic of Iran Navy has significantly increased its ports of call in the region in the last three years. Typically, a “flotilla” of two Iranian warships, consisting of a small destroyer and a “replenishment” ship such as the Bushehr or Kharg, visit ports in Sudan, Syria, and possibly Eritrea.
It is generally assumed the supply ship provides fuel and supplies to the destroyer, but in many cases, the larger tankers are likely hauling weapons for Iran’s Houthi, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas proxies. The destroyer serves to protect the supply ship.
Avoiding Capture on the High Seas
Iran may have decided to limit the use of commercial shipping. On the other hand, stopping another county’s warship on the high seas without United Nations authorization is considered an act of aggression. “Warships on the high seas have complete immunity from the jurisdiction of any State other than the flag State,” according to the 1958 UN Convention on the High Seas.4 Iran naval craft are immune.
On April 8, 2015, the commander of the Iranian navy sent the Bushehr supply ship and Alborz destroyer to the “Gulf of Aden and Bab al-Mandab Strait … to provide [safety for] Iran’s shipping lines and protect the Islamic Republic of Iran’s interests in the high seas.”5 The maritime region surrounds Yemen; Bab al-Mandab is the strategic gateway to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Did the Bushehr offload weapons for the Houthis?
Other visits of the Iranian Navy include:
- In May 2014, the Bushehr and an Iranian destroyer docked at Port Sudan. Sudanese officials explained “its relations with Iran are based on common interests and not intended to threaten the interests of the Arab Gulf states.”6
- In December 2012, Iran’s “23rd fleet,” consisting of the Bushehr and the Jamaran destroyer, docked at Port Sudan.
- In February 2012, the Kharg and the Shahid Qandi destroyer made a rare transit of the Suez Canal and docked in the Russian-controlled port of Tartous/Latakia in Syria.
- The Kharg and the Alvand frigate visited Latakia in February 2011. They were the first Iranian ships to pass through the Suez Canal since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.
One exception to the Iranian Navy’s plan to raise its profile may be an ill-conceived attempt by a destroyer and replenishment ship to sail across the Atlantic in 2014 to the U.S. coast to send a “message” by “deploying naval forces along the U.S. marine borders to counter the presence of the American naval fleet in the Persian Gulf.”7 Even though the ships could have probably found friendly ports in Cuba or Venezuela, the “flotilla” turned around.
For now, Iran does not have a “deep water” navy. Its primary theater is the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, in 2013 the standard pair of Iranian ships visited China after a 40-day voyage. In June 2014, the Bushehr and the Alvand frigate paid visits to Tanzania’s port of Dar es Salaam and Capetown, South Africa.
Iran possesses a “second navy” – operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It consists of 1,500 fast attack boats and patrol boats in the Persian Gulf. They regularly swarm and harass U.S. and British navy vessels in the Gulf.
* * *