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Iran ‘spy ship’ suspected of guiding Red Sea attacks could be US target

An Iranian suspected spy ship is sheltering near a Chinese-owned port off the coast of Djibouti amid calls for the US to strike it.

The Behshad is suspected of supplying targeting information for the Yemeni Houthi group to use in attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea that have disrupted one of the world’s busiest commercial routes at a cost of billions of pounds.

The vessel left the Red Sea for Djibouti just before the US began strikes against Iranian and allied targets across the region last Friday in response to the killing of three US soldiers by an Iran-backed militia at a base in Jordan last month. Houthi attacks have reportedly reduced since the Behshad relocated.

The US also claimed a strike in Baghdad on Wednesday that killed a leader of Khataib Hezbollah, one of the most powerful Iraqi militias aligned with Tehran. The White House said the “multi-tiered” response to the Jordan attack is ongoing.

US officials told NBC News that the Behshad has supplied intelligence to the Houthis used in air strikes against commercial ships. US defence department press secretary Major General Patrick Ryder said: “I am not aware of the US targeting the Behshad. We are very well aware of the ship.”

The Iranian military published a video on Sunday claiming that the ship is used for counter-piracy and warning against attacks on it.

“Those engaging in terrorist activities against the MV Behshad or similar vessels, jeopardise international maritime routes, security and assume global responsibility for potential future international risks,” the video stated.

Dr Michael Knights, a specialist on Iran and its non-state allies at the Washington Institute think tank, said the ship would be a legitimate target for the US.

“The Behshad and its sister ship Safiz, in the Indian Ocean, are viable targets and that is why Behshad is hiding near a Chinese military port in Djibouti,” he told i.

“These are the ships that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) use to ferry trainers and specialised equipment into Yemen, through the UN embargo. The ships are also used to give the Houthis ‘over the horizon’ targeting data on ships to attack,” Dr Knights added, citing confidential intelligence reports.

A car burns in Baghdad, Iraq, February 7, 2024, in this screengrab obtained from a social media video. Video Obtained by Reuters/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
Aftermath of US strike targeting a militia leader in Baghdad on 7 February (Reuters)

Michael Mulroy, a former senior US defence department official and Iran analyst, agreed.

“It has been an open secret for years that this ship is used to collect intelligence, to assist in the tracking and targeting of vessels and as a base afloat for IRGC commandos”, he said, adding that it was highly likely that the Behshad was providing intelligence to guide Houthi attacks.

“It is a legitimate military target in my estimation and has been for some time,” Mr Mulroy said. “The drawback is that targeting it will escalate the conflict in the eyes of the Iranian regime.”

Dr Andreas Krieg, a military analyst and senior lecturer in security studies at King’s College London, said the ship was a key intelligence node for Iran and allies but a direct attack on it could be high risk.

“I share the the view of most intelligence services that the Behshad is obviously not just a floating armoury, but actually an ISTAR platform (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) that presents a command and control centre for the Houthi operation,” he said.

But a US strike would compel a major Iranian response, Dr Krieg added, suggesting instead a covert operation to incapacitate it.

“I think the easiest way to undermine the capabilities of the Behshad would be to use electronic jamming, making sure that it cannot communicate with the Houthis on land,” he said. “While the Iranians would see this a hostile act it would still be short of an armed attack.”

Dr Hamidreza Azizi, an Iran foreign policy specialist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said that little evidence of the Behshad’s involvement with Houthi operations had been presented and an attack on it would mark a significant escalation.

“I haven’t seen concrete information,” he said. “I think a decision by the US to target this ship would require some leaked information or even an official statement providing evidence of its involvement in Houthi attacks to be convincing in the eyes of the international community.”

“The Americans know this would be something totally different in terms of repercussions” to prior strikes in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Dr Azizi added.

Tehran would probably view an attack on the Behshad in similar terms to the assassination of IRGC Commander Qassem Solemani in 2020, the analyst said. Iran responded to that with a missile attack on a US base.

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