DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Corps is building a massive new support vessel near the strategic Strait of Hormuz as it seeks to expand its naval presence in waters vital to international energy supplies and beyond, satellite photos obtained by The Associated Press show.
The construction of the Shahid Mahdavi provides the Guard with a large, floating base from which to sail the small fast boats that largely make up the fleet designed to counter the US Navy and other Allied forces in the region.
His arrival, however, comes after a series of setbacks for both the Guards and Iran’s regular navies, including the loss of its largest warship less than a year earlier. As negotiations on Iran’s nuclear deal with the world powers also fail, further confrontations at sea between Tehran and the West remain a risk.
“They look beyond the Persian Gulf and into the blue waters of the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea and the northern Indian Ocean,” said Farzin Nadimi, an associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy who studies the Iranian military. .
The Shahid Mahdavi appears to be a retrofit of an Iranian freighter known as the Sarvin, based on earlier photos of the ship that also has a similar curvature to the hull.
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De Sarvin arrived at Bandar Abbas in late July last year and then switched off his trackers. On January 29, satellite photos from Planet Labs PBC analyzed by the AP showed the ship in dry dock at Shahid Darvishi Marine Industries, a company affiliated 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, a military naval expert who first identified the ship as being near Bandar Abbas, the ship appears to have anti-aircraft weapons on the bow and stern. A flag for the Revolutionary Guards, with the logo of a fist holding an assault rifle with a Quran below and a globe behind it, hangs from the ship’s bridge.
A high-resolution planet photo commissioned by the AP from the drydock on Saturday showed the metallic-grey Shahid Mahdavi still at the shipyard. Right next door, one of Iran’s Kilo-class, diesel-powered attack submarines appears to be undergoing major overhaul. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran is said to have one Kilo-class sub that is operational while another is also non-functional.
As the image of the Shahid Mahdavi circulated online, the semi-official Fars news agency published a story about the ship. Fars, believed to be close to the Guards, 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 series of new defense and combat innovations for heavy ship construction, in line with the mass development of light ships, and equipping them with various arrays, can enhance Iran’s authority over the Persian Gulf and the (Gulf) of Oman. always preserved against trans-regional enemies,” said Fars.
Such floating bases have been used in the region before, most notably by the US Navy during the so-called “Tanker War” in the 1980s after Iraq invaded Iran. As Iranian mines exploded against crude oil shippers during that war, the navy began escorting ships from the Persian Gulf through the narrow estuary, the Strait of Hormuz. The strait to this day sees a fifth of all traded oil pass through it.
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During the conflict, US special forces operated from commercial barges that served as forward operational bases. The Navy still works with the idea today – the Middle East-based 5th Fleet was home to the USS Lewis B. Puller, a massive ship designed on the basis of an oil tanker that could house troops and attack helicopters.
“The Shahid Mahdavi looks like it will be configured as a floating forward staging base, to use the term US Navy,” said Michael Connell, an Iran expert at the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses. “The Puller was parked in the Persian Gulf for years and the Iranian military witnessed its usefulness as a platform for expeditionary warfare and power projection.”
For years, the Guards patrolled the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, while Iran’s regular navy patrolled the seas and oceans beyond. Building the Shahid Mahdavi likely gives the Guard the opportunity to expand its presence into the waters once patrolled by the navy.
History is also not something that has escaped Iran. The name choice for the Guard’s newest ship – Shahid Mahdavi or Martyr Mahdavi – comes from Nader Mahdavi, an Iranian guard who was killed by the US Navy in 1987 during the “Tanker War.”
America’s assassination of Mahdavi, which took place after his troops opened fire on US special forces helicopters, still reverberates in Iran today. Tehran claimed without evidence that America captured and tortured him alive because of the condition of his body after it was returned. The US helicopters had shelled the Iranian ships that Mahdavi was overseeing with machine guns, rockets and “fléchette” rounds – small metal darts.
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Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself once delivered a speech with a portrait of Mahdavi next to him in 2019. That was around the time of a series of mine attacks on ships in the Middle East that the US Navy blamed on Iran amid the collapse. of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
The use of Mahdavi’s name suggests that the Guards see this as a means of challenging the US Navy in the Middle East, especially with the new ship likely capable of supporting the so-called “swarm attacks” Iran can launch against larger American warships.
cmdr. Timothy Hawkins, a spokesman for the 5th Fleet, declined to comment specifically on the Shahid Mahdavi because “we are careful not to discuss intelligence-related matters.”
“But in general, we pay close attention to the maritime environment with our international partners in the interest of regional security and stability,” Hawkins said.
The arrival of the Shahid Mahdavi, the largest ship in the Guard’s fleet, comes amid a series of sea disasters off Iran. The Kharg, the largest warship in the regular navy, sank last June. In 2020, a missile accidentally hit a naval vessel during an exercise, killing 19 sailors and injuring 15. An Iranian naval destroyer sank in the Caspian Sea in 2018.
Meanwhile, a cargo ship in the Red Sea, believed to have been a Guards intelligence base, was hit by an explosion believed to have been caused by Israel last year. The Shahid Mahdavi could play a similar role in spy and sabotage missions by special forces, said Nadimi, the Washington Institute analyst. It could also potentially be equipped with long-range missiles.
“Bad things can happen around this ship,” Nadimi warned.