DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards Corps is building a massive new support ship near the strategic Strait of Hormuz to expand its naval presence in waters vital to international energy supplies and beyond, such as satellite photos from The Associated Press Review.
The construction of the Shahid Mahdavi provides the Guards with a large, floating base from which to pilot the small, fast boats that make up most of their fleet intended to counter the US Navy and other Allied forces in the region.
However, their arrival comes after a series of setbacks for both the Guards and regular Iranian navies, including the loss of their largest warship less than a year earlier. Since the negotiations on the nuclear deal with Iran are also failing with the world powers, further confrontations at sea between Tehran and the West remain a risk.
“You look beyond the Persian Gulf into the blue waters of the Arabian Sea, Red Sea and northern Indian Ocean,” said Farzin Nadimi, an associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, which studies Iran‘s military.
The Shahid Mahdavi appears to be a retrofit of an Iranian cargo ship known as the Sarvin, based on previous images of the ship, which also has a similar curvature to its hull.
The Sarvin arrived off Bandar Abbas in late July last year and then turned off her trackers. On Jan. 29, Planet Labs PBC satellite photos analyzed by AP showed the ship in dry dock by Shahid Darvishi Marine Industries, a company affiliated with Iran’s Defense Ministry west of Bandar Abbas.
A picture of Shahid Mahdavi first circulated on social media. According to HI Sutton, an expert on military ships, the ship appears to have anti-aircraft weapons on the bow and stern first identified the ship as near Bandar Abbas. Hanging from the ship’s bridge is a Revolutionary Guards flag with the logo of a fist holding an assault rifle with a Koran beneath it and a globe behind it.
A high-resolution Planet image taken from dry dock on Saturday, commissioned by AP, showed the gunmetal-colored Shahid Mahdavi still in the dockyard. Nearby, one of Iran’s Kilo-class diesel-powered attack submarines appears to be undergoing a major overhaul. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran is said to have one operational Kilo-class submarine, while another is also inoperative.
As the image of the Shahid Mahdavi circulated online, the semi-official Fars news agency ran a story about the ship. Fars, who is believed to be close to the Guard, described the ship as a “mobile naval city” capable of “ensuring the security of Iran’s trade lines and the rights of Iranian sailors and fishermen on the high seas.” .
“This series of new defense and combat innovations for building heavy ships in line with the mass development of light ships and equipping them with various arrangements can always maintain Iran’s authority over the Persian Gulf and (Gulf) of Oman in the face of supra-regional enemies,” he said fars.
Such floating bases have been used in the region before, notably by the US Navy during the so-called “tanker war” in the 1980s after Iraq invaded Iran. When Iranian mines detonated against crude oil suppliers during that war, the navy began escorting ships out of the Persian Gulf through its narrow estuary, the Strait of Hormuz. A fifth of all traded oil flows through the strait.
During the conflict, US special forces operated from merchant ships that served as bases for forward operations. The Navy is still working with the idea today — the Middle East-based 5th Fleet was home to the USS Lewis B. Puller, a massive oil tanker-designed ship capable of boarding troops and attacking helicopters.
“The Shahid Mahdavi looks set to be configured as a floating forward staging base, to use the US Navy term,” said Michael Connell, an expert on Iran at the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyzes. “The puller was parked in the Persian Gulf for many years and the Iranian military saw 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 the regular Iranian Navy patrolled the seas and oceans beyond. The construction of the Shahid Mahdavi likely gives the Guard the opportunity to extend their presence to waters once patrolled by the Navy.
History has not escaped Iran either. The choice of name for the Guard’s newest ship – Shahid Mahdavi or Martyr Mahdavi – comes from Nader Mahdavi, an Iranian Guardsman who was killed by the US Navy in 1987 during the “tanker war”.
America’s killing of Mahdavi, after his troops opened fire on US special forces helicopters, still resonates in Iran today. Tehran has claimed without evidence that America captured him alive and tortured him due to the condition of his body after he was returned. The American helicopters had fired machine guns, rockets and “flechette” — small metal darts — at the Iranian ships Mahdavi was overseeing.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself once gave a speech in 2019 with a portrait of Mahdavi nearby. This was around the time of a string of mine attacks on Middle East shipping that the US Navy blamed on Iran amid the failure of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
The use of Mahdavi’s name suggests the Guard sees this as a means to challenge the US Navy in the Middle East, particularly with the new ship likely capable of supporting the so-called “swarm attacks” being carried out by the Iran can launch against larger American warships.
Commander Timothy Hawkins, a spokesman for the Fifth Fleet, declined to comment specifically on Shahid Mahdavi as “we are careful not to discuss intelligence-related matters.”
“But in general, with our international partners, we pay very close attention to the maritime environment in the interests of regional security and stability,” Hawkins said.
The arrival of the Shahid Mahdavi, which would be the largest ship in the Guards fleet, comes amid a series of maritime disasters for Iran. The Kharg, the largest warship in the Regular Navy, sank last June. In 2020, a missile accidentally hit a naval ship during an exercise19 sailors were killed and 15 injured. An Iranian Navy destroyer sank in the Caspian Sea in 2018.
Meanwhile, a Red Sea cargo ship believed to be a Guards intelligence base suffered an explosion last year that is believed to have been caused by Israel. The Shahid Mahdavi could play a similar role in special forces espionage and sabotage missions, said Nadimi, the analyst at the Washington Institute. It could also potentially be fitted with long-range missiles.
“Bad things can happen around this ship,” Nadimi warned.
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