At the Annual Economist Government Roundtable in Greece on July 5, 2022, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz disclosed, “Iran is methodically basing itself in the Red Sea, with warships patrolling the southern region.” He added, “The presence of Iran’s military forces in the Red Sea in recent months is the most significant in a decade. It directly threatens trade, energy, and the global economy.”1
A short time earlier, a website that opposes the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen reported that on June 28, 2022, Somali security forces in Bandar Beyla on the Arabian Sea coast captured two weapons-laden boats that the Houthis, with help from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), were trying to deliver to the Somali terror organization Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen al Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa, more commonly known as “al Shabaab.”
The report said that the boats, which had Somali and Yemeni crews, belonged to Ahmad Matan, a Somali smuggler behind the October 2017 truck bombing in Somalia that killed more than 500 people. The smuggling is conducted from Somalia to Yemen and vice versa.2
In November 2021, the organization “Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime” reported that weapons deliveries from Iran to the Houthis had found their way to Somalia. Some navigation systems on arms-smuggling ships intercepted by the U.S. Navy showed exit points from the port of Jask in Iran (where the IRGC navy (IRGCN) and the Iranian navy operate) and from the port of Mukalla in Yemen, which is used for Yemeni and Somali smuggling. Among other items, the U.S. Navy seized hundreds of AK-56 assault rifles, a Chinese variant of the Russian AK-47 Kalashnikov.3
In May 2021, the U.S. warship USS Monterey confiscated a weapons shipment whose source was apparently Iran. It included thousands of assault rifles, 52 AM-50 Sayyad sniper rifles (an Iranian version of the Austrian Steyr HS.50 sniper rifle, which is sold by Austria to the Iranian police and is also in Hamas’ and Palestinian Islamic Jihad arsenals), optical sights, and armor-piercing munitions for the sniper rifles, anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), RPG-7 rocket launchers, and light Chinese- and Bulgarian-manufactured machine guns.
On July 7, 2022, the UK revealed that on January 28 and February 25, 2022, Royal Navy ship HMS Montrose’s Royal Marines seized Iranian weapons from speedboats being operated by smugglers in international waters south of Iran. The UK announcement came a day after Iran’s Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Intelligence Organization accused several foreign nationals of carrying out espionage in forbidden zones, including Britain’s deputy ambassador in Iran.
Iran’s foreign ministry has rejected Britain’s “baseless and out-of-date claim” and blamed the UK for being a “part in the aggression against Yemen” by selling advanced weapons to the Saudi-led-coalition…and (as such) “it is not in a position to make accusations against Iran.”4
The seizure marked “the first time a British Naval warship has interdicted a vessel carrying such sophisticated weapons from Iran.” “Weapons seized included surface-to-air-missiles and engines for land-attack cruise missiles, in contravention of UN Security Council resolution 2216 (2015) … The shipment contained multiple rocket engines for the Iranian-produced 351 land-attack cruise missile and a batch of 358 (the U.S. designation) surface-to-air missiles) SAMs).”
The 351 (the U.S. designation, Houthis call it Quds-1) is an Iranian-designed cruise missile with a range of 1,000 km. It is regularly used by the Houthis to strike targets in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and was also the weapon used to attack the Musaffah oil facility in Abu Dhabi on January 17, 2022, killing three civilians. Ansar Allah (Houthis) claimed they used the new Quds-2 variant in the attack.5, 6 A UN Panel of Experts assesses that the 351 / Quds engine is an unlicensed Iran copy of the TJ-100 turbojet produced by PBS Velká Bíteš of the Czech Republic.7
Dismantling the missiles into sections makes it easier for Iran to smuggle them into Yemen and later reassemble them.
This was not the first time Iran had tried to smuggle such missiles. The 358 SAMs and 351 land-attack cruise missiles also were found in weapon shipments seized when the U.S. Navy’s USS Normandy8 searched a dhow in the Arabian Sea on February 9, 2020, and the USS Forrest Sherman searched another on November 25, 2019. Also seized by the USS Sherman were: 21 Dehlavieh anti-tank guided missiles (likely to be the Iranian Dehlavieh version of the 9M133 Kornet); 351 land-attack cruise missile components; and Noor-C802 anti-ship cruise missile components.9 [On July 14, 2006, the Israeli ship INS Hanit was hit by a C-802 fired by Hizbullah off the Lebanese coast, killing four sailors.]
In recent years, the IRGC navy (IRGCN), which has conducted most of the naval activity in the Persian Gulf region, has also spread its activity to other venues, including the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean. In some of its operational activities, the Revolutionary Guards’ navy, granted priority for equipment, manpower, and training, was aided by the Iranian navy (IRIN). The two navies cooperate in assisting the Houthis. Some IRIN activity has been part of the war against piracy since 2008 and has also been involved in protecting Iranian oil tankers and commercial ships.
Since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, the presence of Iranian ships on the seas nearby has grown. The two Iranian navies work together operationally in the region, particularly in conveying arms to the Houthis and demonstrating power in the face of the Saudi blockade of Yemen.
In the Arabian Sea and Red Sea region, the IRGC navy’s presence is mainly clandestine. Civilian vessels are used to collect intelligence and deliver arms to the Houthis. According to foreign reports, in April 2021, the “cargo” ship MV Saviz was struck by Israeli mines in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen and taken out of action.10
At approximately the same time, Iran launched the Shahid Roudaki, a commercial craft converted into a support surface vessel or base ship. Meanwhile, the Saviz appeared to have been replaced by another general cargo vessel, the Behshad. These vessels, used as floating platforms for launching various aircraft and smaller boats, enable Special Forces to operate at greater ranges.
In the launching ceremony for the Shahid Roudaki in November 2019, Iran boasted that the IRGCN ship carries surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles, radar and intelligence equipment, and different kinds of boats, helicopters, and drones.11
The commander of the IRGCN, Rear Adm. Alireza Tangsiri, said in April 2022 that the Shahid Roudaki was equipped and deployed to defend and carry out its missions in distant waters, adding that the IRGCN is trying to “maintain its presence in international waters around the world… We are obliged to protect our interests against our enemies, and on the other hand, these ships can expand our operational depth in blue waters.”12
Defense Minister Gantz also disclosed that four Iranian vessels are operating in the Red Sea: two replenishment ships of the Bandar Abbas class, a logistic landing boat of the Hengam model. and a frigate of the Mowj class, which is manufactured in Iran (other frigates of this class, called “destroyers” by Iran, include the Jamaran, Damavand, Sahand, Dena, Talayieh, and Zagros). The frigates are equipped with a torpedo, Chinese 802-B anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, aerial defense systems, machine guns, and different electronic systems. It is worth stressing that they belong to the Iranian navy (IRIN), not the IRGC navy (IRGCN), and that some of them operate in the region against pirates and escort Iranian commercial vessels and tankers. At the same time, as noted, the IRGC is exploiting the Iranian “blue-water” navy’s presence to conduct operational activity from these ships since their own “green-water” ships are tasked with patrolling the Persian Gulf littoral region and engaging in asymmetric warfare against the American navy.
The Iranian presence in the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea hides behind slogans of the international war on piracy. However, it is also used for Iranian operational activity and arms smuggling to the Houthis in Yemen, Somalia, and Palestinian terror organizations in Gaza and Lebanon. As part of Iran’s aggressive drone strategy, converted ships used by the IRGC navy and the Iranian navy serve as launch platforms for drones, fast-boats, and explosive-laden naval suicide boats (GPS-guided and unmanned) that can strike targets in the Mediterranean, including the Israeli gas rigs. These Iranian naval capabilities are well-suited to Iran’s asymmetric-warfare doctrine. Some of these capabilities are now in use against Saudi strategic infrastructure, including attacks on oil facilities at sea and on land, on Saudi ships operating off the Saudi coast, and for Iranian retaliatory attacks against foreign assets in the region.
Moreover, Iran is smuggling arms to the Horn of Africa to step up its involvement in the region and strengthen its foothold in the Horn of Africa, particularly in Somalia, which is not only a destination in itself for arms smuggling but a transit station for moving arms up the Red Sea toward the Mediterranean.
Iran’s naval activity in the region has been hit by hard times, including mysterious attacks on Iranian ships and the confiscation of weapons on ships and boats originating in Iran. Yet Iran will continue its seaborne activity in the region, upgrade its drone-launching capabilities (for attacks and intelligence collection) from maritime platforms, and deliver arms to its allies in the area, the Palestinian terror organizations, and Hizbullah.
With ongoing air strikes against its proxies in Gaza, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, Iran attaches great importance to surface-to-air weapons. Accordingly, it will continue to upgrade its proxies’ capabilities in this regard with 358 SAMs and MANPADS and other air defense capabilities through smuggling via the air, land, and sea.
The increased Iranian presence – including IRGC forces tasked with logistic assistance and terror – intensifies the threat to international commercial and shipping lanes. It augments Iran’s ability to attack ships, such as the strike on the MT Mercer Street cargo ship off the coast of Oman in July 2021. The U.S. Central Command stated that the drone that hit the ship and killed two crew members was manufactured in Iran (two other drones launched toward the ship missed their target).
The improvement in Iran’s naval warfare, aerial and sea drones, fast boats, and missile capabilities from maritime platforms all give Iran the ability to operate against targets at sea in asymmetric warfare and to develop a possible response against Israel in retaliation to ongoing attacks on Iranian security assets and nuclear targets.
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8 https://www.pbs.cz/getmedia/7f79a627-b077-4d2a-bb3d-3e153fe604ad/PBS-reacts-to-UN-Final-report-regarding-the-aerial-attacks-on-Saudi-Arabia_EN.pdf.aspx; https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N20/106/86/PDF/N2010686.pdf?OpenElement