- Attacks on Red Sea shipping and Saudi Arabia are blamed on Houthi fighters, proxies for Iran.
- An Iranian civilian cargo ship, the Saviz, in a semi-permanent anchorage in the middle of the Red Sea, may be the “mother-ship” providing intelligence and arms to the Houthis.
- The Revolutionary Guard’s navy just launched a new warship, the Roudaki, which appears to be the Saviz’ replacement.
On Monday, December 14, 2020, a fuel tanker, the Singapore-flagged BW Rhine, was hit with an explosion while unloading at the Jeddah port in Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea. The resulting fire was extinguished, and the crewmen were rescued. The Red Sea is a crucial shipping route between the narrow Bab-el Mandeb and the Suez Canal, and recently, ships have been sailing the gauntlet avoiding terrorist acts, mines, and remotely-steered explosive boats. It is believed that the Rhine was hit by a robot boat, probably steered by Houthis, a Yemenite Shiite military movement serving as Iran’s proxy and at war with Saudi Arabia.1
In 2000, the USS Cole destroyer, refueling in Yemen’s Aden harbor, was attacked by a suicide boat steered by two bombers. The massive explosion blew a 12 by 18-meter hole in the ship and killed 17 American sailors. The differences in the attacks are few: the Cole was hit in an al-Qaeda attack. In the Rhine bombing and other similar attacks recently, the attackers apparently learned to take the “man” out of the robot boat. But the devastation can be just as lethal.
Several such “suicide boats” have been intercepted in recent months in the Red Sea. “The boats represented a threat to regional and international security, maritime routes, and international trade,” according to Arab Coalition Spokesperson Colonel Turki al-Malikial-Maliki.
The spokesman said the boats were launched from Hudaydah Governorate, which the Houthi militias use “as a base to launch ballistic missiles, drones, booby-trapped remote-operated craft, as well as the random deployment of sea mines in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”2
The Mother Ship
The Houthis have been involved in the recent attacks and minings, but instructions and intelligence are believed to be transmitted from a “mother ship,” the Savitz, anchored in the Red Sea some 645 kilometers south of Jeddah and 200 kilometers west of the Yemen port, Hudaydah.
“A ship like Saviz could carry [Iranian military] Qods Force command and control elements and host berthing and logistics, while controlling the activities of smaller, lower-profile craft,” according to J.E. Dyer, a retired Naval intelligence officer who published a lengthy analysis on the ship.3
“The Iranian military is likely using the Saviz to provide targeting data for Houthi anti-shipping attacks,” military analyst Michael Knights warned in 2018 in his analysis, “Curbing Houthi Attacks on Civilian Ships in the Bab al-Mandab” for the Washington Institute.4
Arab press claims “boats are lashed to the ship’s decks, high caliber machine guns are on deck, and the mast is adorned with sophisticated antennas suitable for communications, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, and possibly directing drones.”
Traditionally, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) serves as the deep “blue-water” navy and is comprised of submarines, corvettes (Iran calls them “destroyers”), patrol craft, and a large replenishment ship. The Revolutionary Guard has its own navy, the IRGCN, and it is considered a “green water” navy for patrolling the Persian Gulf with its fast boats and patrol boats.
But the Saviz marks a critical change in the role of the Revolutionary Guard. Note the IRGCN’s logo in the second Saviz photograph. The Guard is moving into “blue waters.”
The Saviz fell under international sanctions in 2007-2008 for its arms trafficking. The sanctions were waived by the Obama administration with the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the “Iran Deal”) in January 2016.9 The United States Treasury Department restored sanctions against the Saviz on November 5, 2018, with this order:
SAVIZ General Cargo Iran flag; Additional Sanctions Information – Subject to Secondary Sanctions; Vessel Registration Identification IMO 9167253 (vessel) [IRAN] (Linked To: ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN SHIPPING LINES).10
Is the “Civilian” Saviz about to Be Replaced by the Revolutionary Guards’ Roudaki?
The use of a commercial ship for military missions is problematic for the Revolutionary Guards; the ship is subject to inspections and even military action that is off-limits to the U.S. or the Arab coalition’s military naval ships. The Shahid Roudaki ship was launched from Iran’s Bandar Abbas naval base on the Strait of Hormuz in early November 2020.11
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s new warship, named after Revolutionary Guard naval commander Abdollah Roudaki, can carry helicopters, drones, and missile launchers.12
The Roudaki apparently began its voyages as an Italian “ro-ro” ship (usually commercial vessels used for “roll-on/roll-off” wheeled cargo such as trucks and trailers). The involvement of an Italian shipping company has led to questions in the Italian parliament.13
The Saviz (174 meters long) and the Roudaki (150 meters) bear enough similarities to speculate that the Roudaki warship may replace the Saviz in the Red Sea or embark on a similar assignment in places like the Mediterranean.
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5 Office of U.S. Naval Intelligence, “Iranian Naval Forces, a Tale of Two Navies,” 2017. https://www.oni.navy.mil/Portals/12/Intel%20agencies/iran/Iran%20022217SP.pdf
See also Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, “The United States and the Iranian Policy of Escalation,” https://jcpa.org/the-united-states-and-the-iranian-policy-of-escalation/
10 https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/financial-sanctions/recent-actions/20181105_names. See also Al Arabiya, August 15, 2018, “Trump to sanction Iranian ship ‘Saviz’ for role in Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.” https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2018/08/15/Trump-to-sanction-Iranian-ship-for-facilitating-terror-strikes-in-Red-Sea