Iranian ‘Spy Ship’ In Spotlight As US Seeks Retaliation Against Tehran

Since a Tehran-backed militia in Iraq killed three U.S. soldiers in a drone trike in Jordan, there has been mounting speculation about how Washington might retaliate against Iran.

While unnamed U.S. officials speaking to the media have ruled out a direct strike on Iranian territory, they have suggested that Washington could attack Iranian targets in Iraq or Syria, or naval assets in the region.

Media reports suggest one target could be the Behshad, an Iranian vessel in the Red Sea that experts believe is a spy ship that is operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and provides intelligence to Iranian-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen. Tehran maintains that it is a cargo ship.

The Huthis have attacked commercial shipping in the key global trade route in recent months, in a move that has triggered retaliatory U.S. and U.K. air strikes.

Experts say the United States is unlikely to hit the Behshad, which would be viewed by Iran as a major escalation and could trigger a direct confrontation between Washington and Tehran.

Repurposed Cargo Ship

Built in 1999, the Behshad was constructed as a cargo ship. But it only attracted wider attention in 2021, when it replaced another vessel — the Saviz — in the Red Sea.

The Saviz had long been suspected of helping to smuggle weapons and provide intelligence to the Huthis, but it had to be towed back to Iran after a mysterious explosion.

Aurora Intel, an open-source intelligence group that monitors the Behshad via satellite imagery, told RFE/RL that the vessel has remained largely stationery in the Red Sea since it replaced the Saviz.

The group said the Behshad had switched off its Automatic Identification System (AIS) — meaning it was not broadcasting its location — and was being guarded by Iranian Navy vessels.

The Iranian Navy has maintained a presence in the Red Sea for years. Currently, two Iranian warships — the IRIS Alborz and IRIS Bushehr — are believed to be located close to the Behshad.

Aurora Intel said that small boats regularly visit the Behshad.

“Why would you constantly have small vessels going back and forth from a cargo vessel that is monitored by the navy?” the group asked. “They are moving people, not cargo.”

Aurora Intel said the Behshad turned on its AIS transponder on January 3, a day before it departed its position in the Red Sea, moving south and through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait to the Gulf of Aden.

Since January 11, it has been in a holding pattern just 100 kilometers east of the port of Djibouti, according to the ship-tracking and maritime intelligence service MariTrace.

“Not only is this a less suitable position for disembarking security teams protecting Iranian vessels through a danger zone, [but] it also coincided with an increase in Huthi attacks in the Gulf of Aden,” Jeremy Binnie, a Middle East defense specialist at the global intelligence company Janes, told RFE/RL.

Many of the Huthis’ drone and missile attacks on commercial vessels have occurred in the Gulf of Aden.

“Keep in mind that the Huthis don’t control any coastline on the Gulf of Aden, making it far harder for them to find and verify the ships they want to target there,” he said. “Using a ship [like the Behshad] as a near-permanent observation post would help greatly in this situation.”

Iranian officials and state media have been tight-lipped about the Behshad. But a little-known entity that calls itself the Center for Combating Online Rumors, which appears to be run by a group of pro-government Iranian journalists, said the Behshad “can be of great help” to the Huthis to “punish the aggressors.”

Unlikely Target For The U.S.

Some circles in the United States have called on Washington to strike the Behshad after the Huthis started targeting commercial vessels linked to Israel in November.

The Huthis say they are striking Israeli-linked ships in support of Palestinians following the October outbreak of the war between Israel and Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

Israel launched an offensive in Gaza that has killed thousands of people in the Palestinian enclave in retaliation to a Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7 that killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

Since last month, the Huthis have expanded their targets to include U.S.- and British-linked vessels in response to U.S. and U.K. air strikes on Huthi positions in Yemen.

The calls to strike the Behshad have only grown since the Tehran-sponsored Kataib Hizballah militia carried out a drone strike on a U.S. outpost, known as Tower 22, in Jordan on January 29, which killed three soldiers and injured dozens of service members.

U.S. media, citing officials, have said Washington’s response will come in waves and can take weeks. The targets, they say, include Iranian-backed militias and Iranian assets outside Iran.

While observers believe Washington is likely to strike IRGC targets in Iraq and Syria, some have not ruled out attacks against Tehran’s navy assets.

But experts say the Behshad is an unlikely target.

“My sense is that both Iran and the U.S. are seeking to avoid a direct military confrontation,” said Raz Zimmt, a senior researcher at the Israel-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). “Therefore, hitting this ship, particularly in response to the activities of Iraqi militias, might be perceived as a disproportionate reaction..”

Binnie said any U.S. attack on the Behshad would lead to “allegations that it is doing what the Huthis are doing — illegally attacking commercial ships.”

Binnie added that the United States could make the Behshad a “legitimate target in time of war” by releasing intelligence to make the case that it was being used for military purposes, “but that would effectively represent a direct attack on the Iranian military.”

And if Washington hit the Behshad, Iran would find itself in a conundrum, according to Zimmt.

“Iran has usually tried to respond directly in such cases,” he said. “But… the Iranian dilemma will be very difficult due to Tehran’s concern over the possibility of a U.S. response.”

Binnie suggested the United States could reduce the threat posed by the Behshad without using force.

“Perhaps the better way to neutralize Behshad is by using what militaries call ‘non-kinetic’ means, most obviously by jamming its communications so it cannot pass intelligence to the Huthis on land,” he said.

This could already be happening, Binnie stated, but that would mean dedicating assets, such as naval vessels or aircraft, to the job “that could not then be used elsewhere.”

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