DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards are building a massive new support vessel near the strategic Strait of Hormuz as they attempt to expand their naval presence in waters vital for energy supplies international and beyond, satellite photos obtained by The Associated Show Press.
The construction of the Shahid Mahdavi provides the Guard with a large floating base from which to operate the small, fast boats that make up much of its fleet designed to counter the US Navy. and other allied forces in the region.
His arrival, however, comes after a series of setbacks for the Iranian Guard and regular navy, including the loss of its largest warship less than a year earlier.. As negotiations over Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers also fall apart, further confrontations at sea between Tehran and the West also remain a risk.
“They are looking beyond the Persian Gulf and into the blue waters of the Arabian Sea, Red Sea and northern Indian Ocean,” said Farzin Nadimi, associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy. who studies the Iranian military.
The Shahid Mahdavi appears to be a modernization of an Iranian freighter known as Sarvin, based on previous images of the vessel which also has a similar curve to its hull.
The Sarvin arrived off Bandar Abbas in late July last year and then turned off its trackers. On Jan. 29, Planet Labs PBC satellite photos analyzed by the AP showed the ship in dry dock at Shahid Darvishi Marine Industries, a company associated with Iran’s Defense Ministry just west of Bandar Abbas.
An image of the Shahid Mahdavi first circulated on social media. According to HI Sutton, an expert on naval ships who first identified the vessel as being near Bandar Abbas. A flag for the Revolutionary Guards, showing its logo of a fist gripping an assault rifle with a Quran below and a globe behind it, hangs from the deck of the ship.
A high-resolution Planet image taken from the dry dock on Saturday on behalf of the AP showed the metallic gray Shahid Mahdavi still at the shipyard. Next door, one of the Kilo-class diesel attack submarines appears to be undergoing a major overhaul. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran has one operational Kilo-class submarine while another is also non-functional.
As the image of the Shahid Mahdavi circulated online, the semi-official Fars news agency published an article about the ship. Fars, considered close to the Guard, described the ship as a “mobile naval city” capable of “ensuring the security of Iran’s trade lines, as well as the rights of Iranian sailors and fishermen on the high seas”.
“This range of new defense and combat innovations for building heavy ships, in line with the massive development of light ships, and equipping them with various arrays can still maintain Iran’s authority over the Persian Gulf and the (Gulf) of Oman in the face of cross-regional enemies,” Fars said.
Such floating bases have been used in the region before, especially by the US Navy during the so-called “tanker wars” of the 1980s after Iraq invaded Iran.. As Iranian mines exploded against crude oil shippers in the midst of that war, the navy began escorting ships out of the Persian Gulf through its narrow mouth, the Strait of Hormuz. The strait to date sees a fifth of all oil traded.
During the conflict, US Special Forces operated from commercial barges which served as forward operating bases. The Navy is still working with the idea today – the Middle East-based 5th Fleet housed the USS Lewis B. Puller, a massive tanker-designed vessel that can accommodate troops and attack helicopters.
“The Shahid Mahdavi appears to be set up to be a forward staging afloat base, to use the US Navy’s term,” said Michael Connell, an Iran expert at the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses. “The Puller was stationed for many years in the Persian Gulf and the Iranian military witnessed its usefulness as an expeditionary warfare and power projection platform.”
For years, the Guard patrolled the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, while Iran’s regular navy patrolled the seas and oceans beyond. The construction of the Shahid Mahdavi probably gives the Guard the opportunity to expand its presence in these waters once patrolled by the navy.
Nor is the story something that escaped Iran. The choice of name for the new Guard ship – Shahid Mahdavi, or Martyr Mahdavi – comes from Nader Mahdavi, an Iranian guard killed by the US Navy in 1987 during the “tanker war”.
The US killing of Mahdavi, which occurred after his forces opened fire on US special forces helicopters, still reverberates in Iran today. Tehran alleged without proof that America captured him alive and tortured him because of the condition of his body after his return. American helicopters strafed the Iranian ships that Mahdavi was watching with machine guns, rockets and “flechette” bullets – small metal darts.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself gave a speech with a portrait of Mahdavi next to him in 2019. This was around the time of a series of mine attacks on ships in the Middle East that the US Navy has blamed on Iran. amid the collapse of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
The use of Mahdavi’s name suggests the Guard sees this as a way to challenge the US Navy in the Middle East, especially with the new ship likely to support so-called ‘swarm attacks’ that Iran may launch against larger US warships.
Cmdt. Timothy Hawkins, a 5th Fleet spokesman, declined to comment specifically on the Shahid Mahdavi because “we are careful not to discuss intelligence-related matters.”
“But generally speaking, we are paying very close attention to the maritime environment with our international partners in the interests of regional security and stability,” Hawkins said.
The arrival of the Shahid Mahdavi, believed to be the largest ship in the Guards fleet, comes amid a series of naval disasters for Iran. The Kharg, the largest warship in the regular navy, sank last June. In 2020, a missile mistakenly hit a navy ship during an exercisekilling 19 sailors and wounding 15. An Iranian Navy destroyer sank in the Caspian Sea in 2018.
Meanwhile, a Red Sea freighter believed to be a Guard intelligence base suffered an explosion suspected to be caused by Israel last year. The Shahid Mahdavi could play a similar role in special forces espionage and sabotage missions, said Nadimi, an analyst at the Washington Institute. It could also potentially be equipped with long-range missiles.
“Unpleasant things can happen around this ship,” Nadimi warned.
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