Saudis Rescue Injured Iranian Sailor From Covert Mothership Supporting Yemeni Rebels

Saudi Arabia said it treated the request for aid as a humanitarian issue even though it sees the ship as a threat to regional security.

Royal Saudi Air Force

Saudi Arabia says that it has rescued an injured sailor from a ship in the Red Sea belonging to its arch-rival Iran. The incident is even more unusual given that authorities in Riyadh have accused the Iranians of using the M/V Saviz to aid Houthi rebels in their fight against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The medical evacuation also comes amid an uptick in Houthi strikes on Saudi Arabia proper, as well as attacks on tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, which the Saudis, as well as the United States, have blamed on Iran and its regional proxies. In addition, the U.S. government continues to issue vague warnings about the increased potential for Iranian attacks on American interests, and those of its allies, throughout the Middle East.

Saudi Arabian Colonel Turki Al Maliki announced the operation publicly on June 4, 2019. He said that pararescue personnel from the Saudi military had flown to the Saviz, which was anchored approximately 95 miles northwest of Hodeida, a highly contested Yemeni port city, and retrieved the injured individual. Saudi forces then flew them to a military hospital in Saudi Arabia's port city of Jizan, further to the north. Saudi Arabia has not indicated it has any plans to detain the sailor, but it is unclear how and when they might be repatriated to Iran after they recover.

Al Maliki did not say what Saudi military aircraft were involved, but the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) operates French-made AS532 Cougar helicopters in the combat search and rescue role. Some of these helicopters are also capable of refueling in flight with the help of the RSAF's KC-130 Hercules tankers, though, with a range of more than 350 miles, they may have been able to fly from Jizan to the Saviz and back without support.

Google Maps

A map showing Jizan in the north, Hodeidah in the south, and the approximate location of the M/V Saviz in the Red Sea.

Al Maliki said that Iran, which does not have diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, had relayed the request for help through its mission at the United Nations. Iranian officials have not yet confirmed this, according to the Associated Press, but it is not the first time this has occurred. In May 2019, the Iranian-flagged oil tanker Happiness I experienced a mechanical malfunction in the Red Sea and Saudi authorities towed it to the port of Jeddah, where it reportedly remains. 

But the Saviz is an entirely different beast from an oil tanker. "The leadership of the joint forces has dealt with the situation according to what is dictated by our Islamic religion and human values, despite the threat represented by this suspect vessel, and the hostile acts it carries out against coalition forces and the interests of the Yemeni people and its continued threats to maritime routes and global trade in the Red Sea," Maliki said in his statement about the latest rescue.

News of the ship its potential covert mission first emerged in November 2017, more than 10 months after Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea using a remote-controlled explosive-laden boat. The cargo ship is linked to business enterprises that Iran's powerful quasi-military Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operate and Saudi Arabia has alleged that the vessel may have actively supported the Houthi attack on its warship, as well as subsequent attacks on military and commercial vessels. Saudi officials have also said that it may serve as a trans-shipment point for smuggling arms to the Yemeni rebels.

Saudi Arabia has released photos of Saviz with speed boats lashed to its upper deck and personnel on board in camouflage uniforms. The IRGC's naval forces operate a number of types of boats in this general category, which it can use in swarming attacks, to lay naval mines, or otherwise conduct hit-and-run attacks at sea. They could also carry light cargo loads and move small numbers of personnel back and forth between their mother ship and shore.

Government of Saudi Arabia
Government of Saudi Arabia

Saviz has been in the Red Sea continuously since 2017, even receiving supplies at sea from the Iranian-flagged container ship Arzin in 2018, as seen in the video below. Saudi coalition forces are actively monitoring Saviz, but have not otherwise taken any action against it.

Al Maliki's appeal to piety and basic humanity no doubt factored into Saudi Arabia's decision to come to the aid of the Iranian sailor, but there would have been potential intelligence value to doing so, too. The rescue mission certainly afforded the Saudis an opportunity to get a closer look at the ship externally and now they can indirectly interrogate one of its crew as they are recovering in the Jizan hospital. Saudi intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets were very likely monitoring the medical evacuation operation to try to garner additional information about the Saviz and its activities. Iran may also have been equally able to garner useful information from Saudi search and rescue and other capabilities as a result.

Whether either country might have been able to glean about the other from this incident, it will also be interesting to see what happens now that the sailor is in Saudi Arabian custody of sorts. Tensions between the Saudis and Iranians have been steadily growing in recent years, especially with regards to controversial and brutal conflict in Yemen.

The regime in Tehran has been actively supporting the Yemeni rebels since at least 2015 and has assisted them in fielding a number of increasingly advanced capabilities, including suicide drones and short-range ballistic missiles. The Houthis have used both drones and ballistic missiles to attack Saudi coalition forces in Yemen, as well as to strike at targets inside Saudi Arabia proper. The group has also claimed to have attacked the United Arab Emirates with unmanned aircraft. Just in May, the Houthis have launched drone attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure and ballistic missile strikes on Saudi cities, including Jizan. The Saudis and the Yemeni rebels dispute the damage these incidents have actually caused. 

Beyond that, Saudi Arabia, along with the United States, has blamed Iran, or its proxies, such as the Houthis, for attacks on four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of the UAE, which also occurred in May. No group has yet publicly claimed responsibility for that operation.

Of course, it is entirely possible that the Saudis could release the Iranian sailor after they recover as a goodwill gesture in line with Colonel Al Maliki's about "our Islamic religion and human values." At the same time, if officials in Saudi Arabia determine that this individual has knowledge of the Saviz's covert operations against the Saudi coalition in Yemen, it could easily turn a humanitarian mission into an international incident. 

It's worth remembering that, at present, the Iranian-flagged tanker Happiness I is effectively impounded in Jeddah and its unclear when that ship will be able to leave. Among many other factors, Saudi Arabian policies toward Iran, which it views as a hostile power, and U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports might make it difficult legally to allow the ship to leave. 

This all also comes amid a spike in U.S.-Iran tensions, which began in early May after the U.S. government said it had begun receiving intelligence that showed Iranian forces and proxies potentially preparing for attacks on American and allied forces in the region. To date, there has been no publicly released evidence to support this assertion. The reports have led the U.S. military to deploy, or expedite the deployment, of various additional forces to the Middle East. This has included rushing the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group to the Gulf of Oman, sending various additional aircraft, including B-52 bombers, to bases in the region, and extending the tours of duty for Army Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries. You can read more about these developments here and here.

With all this in mind, and given the existing allegations surrounding the Saviz's activities, it will be very interesting to see if Saudi Arabia's response to Iran's request for assistance helps at all in defusing the present situation or ends up fueling those tensions instead.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com