The geographical location of the Red Sea is at a strategic point since it forms a physical choke point on much of the world’s shipping trade route. While the Suez Canal constricts the flow of shipping vessels passing through its northern end, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait mirrors the same at the southern end as well.
Millions of barrels of crude oil and other goods that are of systemic nature in global trade transit through the Red Sea every year, with much of it destined for markets in Europe as well as North America.
Given its strategic location, the Red Sea has been a long-standing flashpoint in history as well. There have been many instances of ships being exposed to covert military operations, terrorist attacks, as well as the lingering threat of piracy.
Watching every vessel that passes through this strait is an Iranian ship.
Although officially Iran’s Saviz is a merchant ship, it is very likely that it is a forward operating base for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). There have been several open-source reports over the last several years that have stated this. Saudi Arabia has also accused the ship of being operated by the IRGC.
While the role played by the Saviz is typically hard to prove with just open sources, the inference though is lucidly clear since there is apparent reason why the civilian vessel is parked there; uniformed men have also been spotted onboard. Further, the ship’s deck features Boston Whaler type launches, a type that has been popular with the IRGC and is not in keeping with Saviz’s civilian design.
Significantly, the ship is anchored off the Yemen coast at the southern end of the Red Sea, close to where the Bab el-Mandeb Strait forms a natural choke point.
According to analysis of commercial satellite images using automated Information System transmissions, the ship has barely moved over the last three years.
It has been parked such that it can provide constant surveillance of maritime traffic. The narrow waterway just south of its position squeezes tankers to a channel just a couple of miles wide. This area has been witness to numerous attacks on tankers in recent years.
Some of these attacks can be linked to the civil war raging in Yemen where Iran-backed Houthi forces are fighting the government. In 2018, two Saudi oil tankers came under attack near Bab el-Mandeb, which was attributed to the Houthis. As a result of the attack, Saudi oil giant, Saudi Aramco, temporarily stopped shipments through the strait.
Earlier this year in March, the Saudis may have foiled another attack. In October 2016, USS Mason, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, had to fire Standard Missile -2 and Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles to intercept missiles that were fired at it.
According to the Saudis, Saviz was in a position to play a role in the attacks, including feeding intelligence to the Houthis as well as to its domestic intelligence services in Iran.
Iran-backed Houthis are fighting a bloody civil war against Saudi and United Arab Emirates-backed forces and have acquired a range of sea mines, remote-controlled explosive boats and anti-ship missiles. Iran’s hand in supplying know-how, military weapons systems in parts and in whole to the Houthies are well documented.
The IRGC themselves have also come under suspicion of conducting attacks on tankers in the region and have been accused of placing limpet mines on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman on June 13, 2019. They had also seized oil tankers in the past for political reasons: in July 2019, they forced British tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz, following the seizure of an Iranian tanker by Britain which was attempting to supply oil to Syria.
Incidentally, Iran continues to supply oil to Syria. Iranian tankers sail past the Saviz up to the Suez Canal, after which they are escorted by Russian warships. Saviz probably also plays a role in protecting Iranian tankers as they pass through the Red Sea.
The Iranian spy ship is likely to remain parked at its strategic location in the foreseeable future. Its vantage point allows it to provide real-time intelligence on every warship, merchant vessels and tanker that passes through the strait to Iran and its allies.