On Dec. 14, a fuel tanker, the Singapore-flagged BW Rhine, was hit with an explosion while unloading at the Jeddah port in Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea. The resulting fire was extinguished, and the crewmen were rescued.

The Red Sea is a crucial shipping route between the narrow Bab-el Mandeb and the Suez Canal, and recently, ships have been sailing the gauntlet avoiding terrorist acts, mines and remotely steered explosive boats. It is believed that the Rhine was hit by a robot boat, probably steered by Houthis, a Yemenite Shi’ite military movement serving as Iran’s proxy and at war with Saudi Arabia.

In 2000, the USS Cole destroyer, refueling in Yemen’s Aden harbor, was attacked by a suicide boat steered by two bombers. The massive explosion blew a 12×18-meter hole in the ship and killed 17 American sailors. The differences in the attacks are few: The Cole was hit in an Al-Qaeda attack. In the Rhine bombing and other similar attacks recently, the attackers apparently learned to take the “man” out of the robot boat. But the devastation can be just as lethal.

Several such “suicide boats” have been intercepted of late in the Red Sea. “The boats represented a threat to regional and international security, maritime routes, and international trade,” according to Arab Coalition spokesperson Col. Turki al-Malikial-Maliki.

The spokesman said that the boats were launched from Hudaydah Governorate, which the Houthi militias use “as a base to launch ballistic missiles, drones, booby-trapped remote-operated craft, as well as the random deployment of sea mines in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”

The ‘mother ship’

The Houthis have been involved in the recent attacks and minings, but instructions and intelligence are believed to be transmitted from a “mother ship,” the Savitz, anchored in the Red Sea some 645 kilometers (400 miles) south of Jeddah and 200 kilometers (124 miles) west of the Yemen port, Hudaydah.

“A ship like Savitz could carry [Iranian military] Quds Force command and control elements and host berthing and logistics while controlling the activities of smaller, lower-profile craft,” according to J.E. Dyer, a retired naval intelligence officer who published a lengthy analysis on the ship.

“The Iranian military is likely using the Saviz to provide targeting data for Houthi anti-shipping attacks,” military analyst Michael Knights warned in 2018 in his analysis, “Curbing Houthi Attacks on Civilian Ships in the Bab al-Mandab” for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Arab press claims that “boats are lashed to the ship’s decks, high-caliber machine guns are on deck, and the mast is adorned with sophisticated antennas suitable for communications, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and possibly directing drones.”

Traditionally, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) serves as the deep “blue-water” navy and is comprised of submarines, corvettes (Iran calls them “destroyers”), patrol craft and a large replenishment ship. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has its own navy, the IRGCN, considered a “green water” navy for patrolling the Persian Gulf with its fast boats and patrol boats.

But the Savitz marks a critical change in the role of the IRGC. The Savitz fell under international sanctions in 2007-08 for its arms trafficking. The sanctions were waived by the Obama administration with the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA in 2015.

The United States Treasury Department restored sanctions against the Savitz on Nov. 5, 2018, with this order: “SAVIZ General Cargo Iran flag; Additional Sanctions Information—Subject to Secondary Sanctions; Vessel Registration Identification IMO 9167253 (vessel) [IRAN] (Linked to: ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN SHIPPING LINES).

Is the so-called civilian about ‘Savitz’ to be replaced?

The use of a commercial ship for military missions is problematic for the IRGC; the ship is subject to inspections and even military action that is off-limits to the United Statesor the Arab coalition’s military naval ships. The Shahid Roudaki ship was launched from Iran’s Bandar Abbas naval base on the Strait of Hormuz in early November.

The IRGC’s new warship, named after naval commander Abdollah Roudaki, can carry helicopters, drones and missile launchers.

The Roudaki apparently began its voyages as an Italian “ro-ro” ship (usually commercial vessels used for “roll-on/roll-off” wheeled cargo, such as trucks and trailers). The involvement of an Italian shipping company has led to questions in the Italian parliament.

The Savitz (174 meters long) and the Roudaki (150 meters) bear enough similarities to speculate that the Roudaki warship may replace the Savitz in the Red Sea or embark on a similar assignment in places like the Mediterranean.

Lenny Ben-David is the Jerusalem Center’s Director of Publications. Ben-David served 25 years in senior posts in AIPAC in Washington and Jerusalem. He served as Israel’s deputy chief of mission in the embassy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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