The Iranian Navy frigate Alborz transited from Iranian waters through the Bab El Mandeb straight and into the Red Sea on 1 January 2024, according to reports from the Iranian Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), as tensions in the region heighten following a series of attacks on shipping by the Houthi faction in Yemen.
The Houthis swept to power in Yemen in 2015, following a campaign against the regime of the then ruler President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, successfully taking over the capital Sana’a and swathes of the country.
The Houthis are supported by Iran, with Tehran accused by the US to have been providing weapons and training, including one-way attack drones and cruise missiles.
Following the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in October last year, the Houthis formally stated their participation in the conflict on the side of Hamas, pledging to attack commercial shipping in transit through the Red Sea and Bab el Mandeb straight.
US and UK naval forces in recent weeks reported a number of attacks on shipping, and have shot down numerous missiles and drones launched from inside Yemeni territory.
The presence of an Iranian Navy frigate, while not in the same capability class compared to the more modern US and UK warships, adds another element of uncertainty to the worsening maritime security situation.
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In late-2023, Houthi commandos conducted a helicopter-born assault on a commercial vessel that allegedly had ties to Israel, indicating a level of training and capability likely aided by Tehran.
Iranian deployment increases risk of clash with US and UK
The IRNA stated that the Alborz, part of the Iranian Navy’s 94th flotilla, joined the fleet in 2019.
However, analysis of the Iranian Navy’s fleet indicates that the Alborz is an older Alvand-class frigate, built by UK shipbuilders Vosper Thornycraft in the late-1960s, prior to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and introduced into service in the early-1970s.
The Iranian Navy is in the process of building a new class of frigates, the Mouj class, based on the Alvand class, displacing around 1,400 tonnes compared to the 1,100 tonnes of their predecessors. At around 94 metres in length, the Mouj-class frigates are similar in size to offshore patrol vessels, although are equipped with a number of anti-surface warfare capabilities including main guns and Nour anti-ship missiles, which have purported range of 200km.
The Mouj class is also claimed to have anti-air warfare capabilities.
Iran has previously claimed that the Iranian Navy is capable of fielding hypersonic missiles, although this is unable to be independently confirmed.
A number of Iranian state news outlets on 3 July 2023, published articles stating that the head of the Iranian Navy, Rear Admiral Shahram Irani, claimed the new Mouj-class frigate Damavand-2 would be equipped with hypersonic missiles, with the vessel due to be commissioned into service later in 2023.
While the exact class of the Iranian warship sent to the Red Sea is unclear, the potential risk for maritime escalation has increased. The US Department of Defense has created a new multinational naval task force to secure Red Sea trade routes – dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian – which will operate under the umbrella of the Combined Maritime Forces structure in the Gulf region, and through Task Force 153, which focuses on Red Sea security.