An Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps spy ship is suspected of overseeing the seizure of a cargo vessel in the Red Sea by Houthi forces.
The Galaxy Leader car carrier sailed past the Behshad, which has been positioned in the area for two years, before it was boarded by the Yemeni rebels, experts have confirmed to The National.
The Galaxy Leader is operated by the Japanese company NYK line but belongs to Ray Car Carriers, registered in Britain's Isle of Man but owned by Israeli billionaire shipping mogul Abraham “Rami” Ungar.
The vessel was captured despite having its AIS transponder – which relays its position to other maritime traffic – turned off, leading to suspicion its location had been disclosed to the Houthis by the Iranian spy ship.
United Against Nuclear Iran's Claire Jungman, who tracks Iranian vessels for the US-based campaigners, said the Behshad has been in the Red Sea since 2021 when it replaced a previous vessel called the Saviz.
“Both vessels [the Behshad and the Saviz] were cargo vessels converted to spy ships for Iran’s [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard Corps,” she told The National.
“The spy ships are widely known also to help the Houthis in Yemen. It is very possible that the Behshad could have played a role in the hijacking, given its presence and activities in the region.”
Maritime expert Salvatore Mercogliano, who also tracked the Galaxy Leader’s movements, told The National the timing of the seizure is “suspicious” given it had turned off its AIS transponder after passing Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
“It would have sailed close to the Iranian vessel and it could have identified the ship and relayed the information to the forces in Yemen,” said Dr Mercogliano, who is an adjunct professor at the US Merchant Marine Academy.
Western intelligence sources have said the hijacking was ordered by the IRGC Quds Force commander Brig Gen Abdolreza Shahlaei, The Times reported.
He has commanded a unit supplying the Houthis in Yemen and remains in charge of liaison with the rebels.
Tobias Borck, senior research fellow for Middle East Security Studies, told The National the hijacking was "a classic action of one of these groups that is so closely aligned with Iran".
"We won't know the extent of Iran's involvement and that's on purpose, as it fits the general Iranian modus operandi," he said. "Iran works purposely with these groups to create a veneer of deniability, albeit a relatively thin one."
The Houthis, who support Hamas in the continuing Israel-Gaza war, seized the Galaxy Leader and took 25 hostages of various nationalities, but no Israelis, on Sunday.
While it is not the first time Houthis have attacked civilian vessels in the area, the seizure of a ship as large as the Galaxy Leader is a first for the group.
Analysts say the attack could trigger a wider escalation in the Red Sea, an important international shipping route that ends in the Bab Al Mandeb, a strait through which about 6 million barrels of oil a day travels.
Iran has launched sporadic attacks on ships since 2018, when US president at the time Donald Trump launched his “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Tehran.
In June 2021, the US blamed Iran for attacking Mercer Street, a ship also linked to an Israeli business. A British and a Romanian sailor were killed in the assault.
Iran this year seized two oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf, including the Niovi.
The Houthis are known to possess a small number of helicopters, ageing Soviet-era MI-17s captured from the Yemeni government during their rebellion, but these have rarely been used in operations.
Ms Jungman said the latest incident, “especially given its targeting of a vessel linked to Israeli interests, suggests a more assertive stance by the Houthis, reflecting Iran's influence or strategic objectives”.