MS Risk Blog

Iran’s New Shahid Roudaki Warship: Does This Mean Conflict Is on the Horizon?

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On 19 November 2020, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) added an auxiliary warship to its Naval Fleet. The ship was named after the recently assassinated former IRGC Navy Commander, Admiral Abdollah Roudaki. The ships introduction comes at a time where Iran is experiencing tensions with a number of regional players. Improving one’s armed forces is an oftentimes clear indicator of preparing for war. Therefore, would it be right to assume conflict is on the horizon?

The ‘Shahid Roudaki’ will be used as a “marine city,” with the capacity to carry out a wide range of missions such as combat, logistics and reconnaissance, and has the capability of carrying aircraft, drones and missile launchers. The ship also carries an advanced air defence system of the Som Khardad variety, and thus it has both offensive and defensive capabilities. Last month Iran’s Rear Admiral, Hossein Khanzadi emphasised that Iran’s naval power – now strengthened by this warship – will serve maritime security in both the region and the world, and will help to defend the waters and interests of Iran.

But the ship’s launch comes in the wake of heightened tensions between Iran and the United States, which first began to arise in April 2018 when the United States stepped up its sanctions against Iran. Tensions reached peak levels when the outgoing US President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also known as the Iran nuclear deal). In the same year, Ayatollah Khamenei – who has the final say on all matters of state in Iran – banned direct talks with the United States, invoking previous failed talks between the two nations.

In the following year there were tensions in the Gulf of Oman, when the United States accused Iran of sabotaging four foreign ships (oil tankers and other vessels) in the Strait of Hormuz – a location in the Gulf of Oman that borders Iran). The US saw the incident as an attack on its interests, as most of the ships belonged to two of its allies in the region (Saudi Arabia and UAE). The fallout was the US deploying its warships in the Gulf – so as to stave off any further or future attacks from Iranian forces. Introducing the new ship could be its way of flexing its military might in the face of US aggression, but could also indicate Iran is preparing to go to war with the United States – sooner rather than later.

In early 2020, the United States killed former head of the IRGC, Qasem Soleimani in an airstrike ordered by the President. The Pentagon claims Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers (along with coalition troops), and the wounding of thousands of others. US officials also claimed that Soleimani was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and troops in Iraq and in the region before he was killed. Last month President Trump explored attacking Iranian nuclear facilities but ultimately decided against doing so – with top US military advisors warning him of the potential outbreak of a long-war with Iran. Iran responded to such plans by warning the US that any attacks on Iran would be met by a “crushing” response. Such incidents illustrate the potential of both countries to go to war. If it is true that Iran had been planning attacks on US targets, it is entirely possible that the IRGC Navy could be planning to use the new warship to bring to life such plans.

It is more plausible that the new warship could be used to instead carry out further attacks against US interests in the region. As past precedence shows, Iran has the potential to carry out attacks on vulnerable allies of the United States who operate in the Gulf of Oman or the Persian Gulf. The ship could though be Iran’s attempt to level the playing field – by acquiring a warship that can rival the US’s 5th Fleet in the Gulf. Meanwhile on 27 November the US Navy ordered its USS Nimitz to return to the Persian Gulf – approximately one month after it set off to participate in naval exercises with the Indian Navy. The supercarrier and its strike group were asked to return to provide defensive cover for US troops during the drawdown from Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon has said that this move has ensured the US has “sufficient capability” to respond to any threats or to deter any of the US’s enemies from acting against US troops during its drawdown in the region. The US claims such action was not triggered by the recent tensions with Iran as per the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Motivations aside, on 6 December the top US Navy official in the Middle East, Vice Adm. Sam Paparo recently remarked that the US and Iran have reached “an uneasy deterrence,” after months of attacks and sea seizures – suggesting war is not on the horizon.

Shahid Roudaki’s launch also comes at a time of great tension between Iran and Israel. Iranian state authorities have blamed Israel for much – most recently for the assassination of senior Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran at the end of November. Israel has long theorised Iran is developing a covert nuclear programme – which Israel fears would be used against it should Iran be allowed to acquire its own nuclear weapons. Israel along with other international parties believe there is evidence to suggest Fakhrizadeh was at the helm of Iran’s covert nuclear programme. Additionally, Israel has been attacking Iranian targets in Syria for a number of years, over the course of the Syrian Civil War – with the Israel Defense Forces having confirmed they launched over 200 airstrikes against Iranian targets between 2017 and 2018. Since then, Israel has been thwarting attacks within its territory, and has been pre-emptively more Iranian targets inside Syria with its air force. In light of past history, Iran believes Israel is responsible for Fakhrizadeh’s killing, and is seeking revenge for it.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei has already called for “definitive punishment” for the culprits – said to be Israel’s Mossad – and Khamenei’s top advisor has said there will be a “calculated response” to his killing. Other hardliners who blame Israel have called for rocket attacks on Israel’s north-western city of Haifa, presumably via Syria. With the warship now in play, it is quite possible that Iran will use it against Israel. The IRGC Navy has already expressed it is ready to dispatch its vessels into “international waters” – with one of its nearest international bodies of water being the Red Sea (notably Israel’s southern-most point is the Gulf of Aqaba, located at the northern tip of the Red Sea). Time will tell if Iran will veer towards the direction of Israel.

In the meantime Israel has welcomed its own corvette warship to its naval fleet on 2 December – docking in its Mediterranean Haifa Port. The ship is the first of its four German-made ‘Saar 6’ vessels from its “Project Magen”, with the other three scheduled to arrive over the course of the next two years. The Saar 6 vessels are 90-metres in length, and are equipped with missile and rocket defence systems; torpedoes; anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, and upgraded attack helicopter launching pads. This corvette along with the others will be fitted with electronic countermeasures to cope with cruise missiles, and will also contain a maritime version of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system – which will aid them in shooting down high-angle rockets coming their way. The ship will also bring 15 new missile boats to Israel’s naval fleet – which already carries out operations in the Gulf.

The IDF’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi has heralded these ships as “a significant leap forward” in ensuring Israel’s military strength – primarily at a naval level. Israel sees such ships as an effective means of securing its natural gas assets in the north – which have persistently been under fire from Iranian-backed Hezbollah operating inside in Lebanon. Israeli security officials though theorise Iran will use Hezbollah by proxy to target such sites – sites Iran would likely perceive to be ‘prestige’ targets, which Iran would risk attacking without provoking escalation of the conflict. The timing of the first ship’s arrival is certainly interesting – especially in the context of Iran’s new warship. Whilst Israel has not said whether it did so in response to Iran’s new Shahid Roudaki warship, it is likely not a coincidence that it has added the ship to its arsenal now. What can be said with the introduction of such ships under this project is that Israel is now better prepared to defend itself in any kind of war it should find itself in within the region.