Iranian vessels in the Red Sea and rise in piracy incidents

Recent incidents show military Iranian vessels are active in the Red Sea, though their presence in these waters raises many questions.

Iran’s military has been a regular presence in the Red Sea for more than a decade, with several recent incidents pointing to its activity in the strategic shipping route it uses to access its allies in Syria and proxies in Yemen. Though Iranian maritime forces focus primarily on the Arabian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, Iran’s interest in the Red Sea is firmly established, experts said.

The Iranian regime has often suggested, via state-sponsored media outlets, that its military vessels are in the Red Sea to “escort and protect” Iranian and allied tankers from the threat of “pirates”.

But statistics show that piracy in these waters, once a major threat to shipping, has decreased in recent years, due in part to concerted international efforts.

Iran’s Tasnim news agency reported that Iranian naval forces had on May 18 “saved a trade vessel from a pirate attack in the Red Sea”.

It claimed that one of Iran’s merchant ships in the Red Sea made a mayday call after coming under attack from pirates, and that Iranian navy units “tasked with escorting the trade Iranian vessels” were immediately dispatched to the zone.

Maritime intelligence firms meanwhile said the circumstances of the incident, and a similar incident in the same area a few days earlier, remained unclear.

The Iranian vessels had not turned on its Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracker, they said, describing this as “very strange”, as the Red Sea is a major international shipping route.

Iranian ships have a history of turning off their AIS to avoid detection when carrying out illicit activities such as trade in oil that violates international sanctions.

Iran also has a history of smuggling arms to the Houthis via sea, with routes known to pass through the Somali coast or Bab al-Mandeb strait, at the mouth of the Red Sea, as well as via Red Sea islands, using fishing boats.

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