Iran’s Junk Navy, Is A Guerilla Navy & It Serves a Purpose 


Intelligence Research Observatory


Iran’s Junk Navy, Is A Guerilla Navy & It Serves a Purpose 


Methodology-OSINT research


Research & Analysis-S.A. Cavanagh


Background & Analysis

International sanctions have unquestionably crippled the Islamic State of Iran, causing the nations naval fleet to decline drastically.  Iran cannot generate enough revenue to build new maritime assets and decommission its aged, inadequate vessels.  Tehran does not have enough money to properly train personnel capable of sailing & fighting against an adversary.  The chronic wasting of Iran’s navy has forced it into asymmetrical maritime warfare, using repurposed commercial vessels.   Iran has shifted what resources it can, to retrofit commercial cargo ships into a mediocre and limited naval fleet. Putting more modified ships in the water, allows Iran to claim it has an operational navy, capable of conducting limited warfare.  Using this sort of doctrine, Iran to some degree of success, has managed to build a symbolic ghost fleet that is a force multiplier.  Iran’s refit commercial vessels are part of a working maritime guerrilla force, adequate enough in proxy warfare, grey-zone strategies, and special operations.

Limitations aside, Iran’s junk navy serves a purpose, and there are three important objectives that are making the Islamic States limited navy effective,

  • Smuggling
  • Proxy warfare
  • Propaganda


Image of Saviz Courtesy of N12


Iran has refitted the Saviz, a former merchant vessel and deployed it as a spy ship for proxy warfare, special operations, logistics and intelligence gathering. This floating base has been used for years to advise and assist Houthi forces engaged in Yemen’s’ civil war. The Saviz have been a strong performer in Iran’s proxy campaign against Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.  Iran’s support has fueled Houthi gains in central Yemen, battered Saudi reinforced ground forces and fed the chaos needed to prolong the conflict, which is bogging down Saudi Arabia and bleeding it dry. (MIT, 2020)

Satellite Image of Makran Courtesy of CNN


The Makran, although not yet tested, is as capable a mothership as is the Saviz. She is used for intelligence, surveillance and special operations. Makran cleverly, retains its cargo space, and is a flagged naval vessel which cannot be boarded or searched by any sanctioning authority.  The Makrans’ cargo hold, allows Iran to multi-purpose her as a smuggler.  While not able to transport large quantities of material, the Makron allows Iran to thumb its nose at the international community while overtly moving scarce materials and equipment for its nuclear program, unchecked.

Image of Shahid Roudaki Courtesy of Tehran Times

Shahid Roudaki

Iran’s newest commercial conversion, is the Shahid Roudaki a former roll on roll off cargo ship, recently commissioned by The Islamic Republican Guard.  Tehran jestingly claims, she is a heavy combat, intelligence, and support ship that is a mobile naval city, much similar to a U.S. Navy Expeditionary Sea Base.  The Islamic Guard asserts the Shahid Roudaki is ready to conduct various low key ocean missions with all the necessary equipment and facilities to create a stable maritime domain for the Islamic Republic and regional countries. The Islamic navy boasts the scope of its missions has expanded outside of the Persian Gulf, into the open waters of in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and could potentially range as far as the Red Sea.


Iran’s makeshift navy ships; the Saviz, Makron and Shahid Roudaki, provide extraordinary propaganda value to the Islamic nation. Tehran validates it can conduct proxy warfare in Yemen, using Saviz under the cover and protection of a civilian ship.  Makron symbolically establishes that, using post sanction resources Iran can outmaneuver international restrictions and conduct critical smuggling missions. When considering Iran’s Guerrilla navy group, Iran has exhibited it can effectively project a sort of regional power & influence. Iran is showing the international community, it can outfox adversaries by building a junk navy capable of proxy warfare, smuggling operations, and intelligence function; this fully validates that Iran’s junk navy is serving a purpose.


Sanctions Against Iran

Iran became subject to international sanctions because of the Islamic states’ support for regional armed factions and ambitions to develop nuclear missiles.  Implementation of deliberate U.S. policy, global economic sanctions from 2011-2015 contributed to the shrinking of Iran’s economy as its crude oil exports fell by more than 50% and it could not access its foreign exchange assets abroad. Iran’s compliance with implementation of nuclear program restrictions stipulated by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the US administration eased the relevant sanctions and U.N. and European Union sanctions were lifted as well. Remaining in place is U.S. sanctions on direct trade with Iran and on Iran’s support for regional armed factions, its human rights abuses, and on its efforts to acquire missile and advanced conventional weapons technology.  (Congressional Research Service, 2021)

Image Iran Shantytown Poverty Courtesy of NCR Iran

How Did Sanctions Hurt Iran?

Sanctions against Iran have caused significant damage to its economy,

  • Iranian currency lost 50% of its value
  • Food and beverage prices increased by 61%, tobacco by 81%, according to World Bank research
  • Throughout regions of Iran meat was rationed causing long cues in government subsidised grocery stores
  • Petrol subsidies were cut by 50%, causing anger and an uprising that left 208 people dead according to Amnesty International (BBC, 2019)
  • The loss of revenue imposed on Iran by international sanctions caused much of Iranian infrastructure to suffer


Image IRIN Ship Courtesy of Iran Press

How Did Sanctions Affect Iran’s Maritime Forces?

  • Iran’s naval fleet has not been immune to a lack of funding, and access to defense materials and parts
  • The Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and the Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGCN) (naval warfare service of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) were deprived of billions of dollars in operating costs because of sanctions
  • As a result the two navy branches of the Islamic Republic have been forced to find new ways to overcome the lack of resources and manage to conduct naval operations.  Both navies have been required to keep its flotilla in service long after most vessels should have been replaced.  Naval readiness has suffered significantly due to the lack of maintenance, repair and refit


Recently there have been several examples of IRIN & IRGCN poor readiness, training, and security, on its not so-seaworthy vessels……


  • The Kharg Iranian supply ship caught fire in June of 2021 and sank near the strait of Hormuz, while the loss of the Kharg may have been an accident it is likely the incident was an act of sabotage conducted by Israeli Mossad operators, within hours a state owned oil refinery caught fire in Tehran adding to the probability of Israeli interference



  • The Saviz, an Iranian spy ship was sabotaged in an explosion in the Red Sea in April 2021; Israel has been blamed for this attack



  • The Konarak support vessel was hit in 2020, by an anti-ship missile fired by another Iranian warship, the Jamaran frigate, killing nineteen sailors, this has been ruled an accident by the Islamic State, but displays IRINS embarrassing lack of expertise, De Faakto intelligence suggests the probability, a cyber attack conducted by Israel may have hijacked the missile and caused the friendly fire incident



  • The Damavand frigate sank in 2018 while sailing in the Caspian Sea, ostensibly the accident was due to high winds, however in reality the loss was because of human error and poor seamanship (Atlantic Council, 2021)


How is Iran compensating for the Lack of Naval Resources?

  • As a result of sanctions, both branches of the Islamic Republics navy have found new ways to conduct naval operations which overcome the crippling effect of sanctions. Iran has continued its support of proxy warfare in Yemen using its force multiplier Guerrilla navy
  • With a grey-zone navy, Iran continues to foretell regional influence and project certain warfare capability, which in turn supplements Tehran’s propaganda campaigns
  • Some vessels are flagged as naval assets while others remain commercial vessels
  • The commercial vessels, in reality are part of an espionage ghost fleet used as floating logistic bases for proxy warfare, special operations, smugglers and listening posts for signals intelligence


Baird Maritime-an Assessment of Iran’s Post Sanction Naval Refitting Doctrine

  • Years of international sanctions against Iran have obliged the nation’s maritime force providers to engage in large-scale reverse engineering
  • A wide range of foreign vessels and weapon systems have been reproduced, in extensively modified form, for Iranian service
  • Asset numbers are a vital element of Iranian asymmetrical warfare doctrine
  • The relentless expansion (older vessels are seldom retired) of Iranian sea forces has been the adaptation of existing platforms for new roles, such the fitting of support vessels, and even a former presidential yacht, with anti-shipping cruise missiles
  • A tranche of very recent additions to the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy’s (IRIN) order of battle adequately illustrates Iran’s parallel policies of reverse engineering and adaptation (Baird Maritime, 2021)


Who has Refit What Vessel?


 Islamic Republic of Iran Navy

  • Has refitted and deployed the Makran


Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy

  • Has refitted and deployed the Saviz & the Shahid Roudaki



  • The Makran is a former commercial tanker thought to be the Chinese-built, Maltese-registered bulker Makran weighs 40,000-tonne, and is 228-metres long
  • The Makran refit went from tanker to naval vessel in a 2 month period and has been at sea since late December 2020
  • The IRIN Makran is now used by IRIN as a multipurpose navy flagged vessel
  • The Makran functions as a maritime base, logistics vessel, smuggler and intelligence ship

According to an IRIN spokesperson, Makran offers the following capabilities:

  • Special Forces support
  • Search and rescue
  • Fast attack craft basing
  • Hospital facilities
  • Missile launching
  • Electronic warfare

Makran features upper deck holding racks for small craft and has been observed operating Sea King, Sea Stallion and AB 212 helicopters and Pelican drones from a large forward flight deck (Baird Maritime, 2021)


Makran as a Smuggler

  • Most remarkably the Makran can double as a Smuggler; because Makran is a flagged navy vessel of Iran she can not be boarded or searched in international waters for sanctioned materials and weapons
  • The quick refit likely left much of the Makrans’ tanker cargo space intact, allowing it to carry significant volumes of cargo
  • Makran may now be a combination carrier (designed to carry oil or solid cargoes in bulk) (Covert Shores, 2021)

Recently Iranian Naval Ship Makran transited the Baltic Sea accompanied by frigate destroyer IRIN Sahand. The vessels headed to Russia for celebrations marking the occasion of Russia’s Main Naval Parade; the event took place in St Petersburg on 25 July 2021.  The annual Navy Day celebrations were attended by President Vladimir Putin, and ships of the Indian & Pakistani navies (Euro News, 2021)

De Faakto intelligence analysis denotes that Makran may have used its smuggling capability to deliver cargo to Russia as payment for sanctioned goods.  Any number of sanctioned goods could have been transferred back to Iran including conventional weapons and nuclear materials.

De Faakto research also posits that while in Russian port, the Makran was possibly fitted with GPS spoofing equipment by Russian military technicians.  Since leaving St. Petersburg the Makran has been difficult to track and OSINT maritime ship spotters have noticed strange anomalies with Makran positioning; indicating Makrans’ probable new spoofing capabilities.  As Iran has declared intentions to break sanctions by transporting oil to allied nations, the need for AIS spoofing equipment aboard flagged Iranian navy vessels is to be expected.


  • The Saviz is perhaps the most infamous covert navy ship in the Red Sea
  • Saviz is a merchant ship converted by Iran for military purposes
  • In this case the Saviz functions as a semi-permanent forward base of operations for asymmetrical and proxy warfare
  • Saviz continues to identify as a civilian ship, however it has been forensically linked as a “business enterprise” owned and operated by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)
  • The intelligence community has identified the Saviz as a maritime base used primarily to support the Houthi forces fighting a civil war in Yemen
  • As a proxy warfare asset the Saviz has functioned as an offshore command & liaison base, while operating as a surveillance & intelligence collection ship
  • The Saviz is believed to be intercepting signals intelligence, monitoring the shipping lanes in the Red Sea in particular the activities of United Arab Emirates, United States, Saudi Arabian navies
  • Saviz is also suspected of facilitating the smuggling and transfer of weapons and equipment to Houthi rebels in Yemen
  • Saviz may have directed and assisted several attacks on merchant and Saudi navy vessels in the region
  • It is believed the Saviz was involved in the attack on UAE naval transport HVS-2 Swift with an anti-ship missile in October 2016, and the targeting US Navy warships in the same period
  • In January 2017 the Saviz may have supported the Houthi rebel navy when they rammed a Saudi frigate Al Madinah (702) with a remote controlled explosive boat


Where Exactly is the Saviz Located?

  • Saviz has been at anchor in a position (15.8689 N, 41.1344 E / 15° 52′ 8.04″ N, 41° 8′ 3.84″) on the Dahlak Bank, about 7 nautical miles south West in the main shipping route of the Red Sea. This position allows complete radar surveillance of the main shipping corridor


The Saviz as a Mother Ship

  • The Washington Institute for Near-East Policy has called the Saviz an “Iranian mothership” in the region, similarly describing it as an intelligence-gathering base and an Armory for the Guard
  • Briefing materials from the Saudi military earlier obtained by the AP show a variety of antennas on the vessel that the Saudi government described as unusual for a commercial cargo ship, suggesting it conducted electronic surveillance
  • Other images showed the ship had mounts for .50-caliber machine guns
  • Saudi Arabia has released photos of Saviz with speed boats lashed to its upper deck and personnel on board in camouflage uniforms (Associated Press, 2021)
  • Saviz carries a number of fast boats derived from the ‘Boston Whaler’ on deck which can be used for resupply, patrol and liaison. These could also play a limited defensive role, although in open source images they appear unarmed
  • 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 the mother ship and shore (Drive Warzone, 2019)
  • Normally these boats in Iranian service often carry Zu-23 23mm auto-cannons or DShK 12.7mm heavy machine guns
  • In an offensive role these boats can carry rockets or sea mines
  • The boats on deck do not appear to be remote-controlled explosive boats and it is unlikely that Saviz would play such a direct part in any action since it is vulnerable to counter-attack (Covert Shores, 2021)



Shahid Roudaki

Islamic Republic Guard Corps Navies’ latest maritime combatant ship is a grey zone, asymmetrical warfare asset called Shahid Roudaki.  She is another converted cargo ship retrofitted to conduct various low key missions, in more distant locations.  The Shahid Roudaki is considered to function as a special warfare and intelligence support ship. What is interesting about the IRGCN vessel is that it is flagged as a navy vessel, and not a commercial vessel covertly operating as a intelligence espionage ship, this means the Shahid Roudaki is not protected under maritime law and is subject to the rules of warfare.  Some sources compare her to an expeditionary support base.  Much like the Saviz, Shahid Roudaki is expected to anchor in international waters outside a foreign coastline and gather intelligence with radar equipment, deploy small boats and function as a drone carrier.  Shahid Roudaki has little in the way of defenses and would not be able to defend herself beyond the light armaments noted on board.  (USNI, 2020)


What Iran Says About the IRGCNs Latest Initiative

  • Shahid Roudaki warship was handed over to the IRGC Navy in November of 2020
  • Identified as ‘L 110-1’, she is a repurposed and improved civilian cargo ship
  • News media call the Shahid Roudaki a creative initiative, which enables the IRGC Navy to strengthen its fleet at a low cost (English Islam Times, 2021)


What is Iran Saying About the Capabilities of the Shahid Roudaki

  • IRGC Navy Commander Admiral Alireza Tangsiri , describes the vessel capable of carrying a variety of weapons, helicopters, and UAVs worldwide
  • The vessel can protect Iranian sailors and fishers in the open water missions, while creating deterrent defense capabilities for Iran
  • According to Admiral Alireza Tangsiri, the vessel will be used in the Indian Ocean
  • Admiral Alireza Tangsiri, states, “It is unacceptable for our merchant ships and oil tankers to be threatened in open waters or for their safety to be compromised; it is our responsibility to ensure the safety of these ships and we will do it with authority”  (English Islam Times, 2021)


Image of Shahid Roudaki Courtesy of The U.S. Sun


How is Iran Spinning Propaganda Value on Its Latest Navy Refit?

The Islamic state talks about Shahid Roudaki warship and its new capabilities, 

  • IRGCN claims it will be able to participate in remote missions with the Shahid Roudaki
  • The Islamic Republican Guard calls Shahid Roudaki; “ a heavy combat, intelligence, and support ship that is a mobile naval city, ready to carry out ocean missions with all the necessary equipment and facilities to create stable security of maritime transportation lines and provide relief to the commercial and fishing fleets of the Islamic Republic and regional countries” (Janes, 2020)
  • The IRGC Navy, also claims the scope of its missions, has expanded outside of the Persian Gulf, into the open waters of in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and could instead potentially range as far as the Red Sea, while shoring up Iran’s defense capability (Drive Warzone, 2020)
  • Iran further declares it has gained interesting experiences in manufacturing vessels and destroyers, and that transforming tremendous merchant vessels into military ones has practically put Iran on the route of achieving giant warships with military and logistic capabilities (English Islam Times, 2021)


Propaganda Aside, What is the Reality of this Ship Operationally?


  • The Various weaponry on deck is not secured or integrated into the ships design, meaning most of it would be required to be secured below decks in less then perfect seas, this environment can play havoc on sophisticated equipment not designed for the maritime environment
  • There is no launch-recovery system for the fast attack boats in open source images
  • The helicopter lacks a hangar and maintenance bay on deck
  • The vessel was only in refit a short time, this indicates really the vessel is a commercial ship that would not survive a kinetic attack as well as a purpose built combat frigate or destroyer might
  • One well placed anti-ship missile or limpet mine could effectively disable this vessel



  • IRGCN is putting vessels out into the maritime domain, while limited or ineffective against a professional navy, Iran’s junk navy serves a purpose, Iran is demonstrating it will fight and has some capacity to execute missions which it could not before
  • The Shahid Roudaki is now a navy flagged boat, this means it cannot be boarded and can be used as a smuggler, something of importance to a state under tough sanctions
  • The ship has value for proxy war and asymmetrical purposes, it is an effective maritime base in many theatres of conflict, and the Roudaki can transport modest amounts of military hardware to support its proxies/allies in conflict
  • The ship is a working platform for SIGINT and various surveillance functions
  • The vessel is capable of basing special operations in the maritime domain, something of an asset that fills the role of the IRCGNs more unconventional and clandestine undertakings, having this resource is a force multiplier for Iran


Image Shahid Roudaki Courtesy of the U.S. Sun

About Shahid Roudaki and Her Specifications

  • Shahid Roudaki (L110-1) has a length of 150 m, a beam of 22 m, and a displacement of 4,000 tonnes
  • The Shahid Roudaki is a former roll-on, roll-off commercial ship


What has the Shahid Roudaki Got on Her Deck?

Fast Attack Boats

  • A small number of fast attack boats



  • Unmanned aerial vehicles- six Ababil-2 UAVs- which are launched from fixed stands on the ground, the drones are designed for surveillance missions, but can also carry explosive warheads and function as suicide drones…….The Ababil series, and variants and derivatives thereof, has become something of a signature weapon in various conflicts that Iran has engaged in (Drive Warzone, 2020)


Anti-ship Missiles

  • Anti-ship missiles, which are normally land-based air-defence systems consisting of four twin launchers for long-range anti-ship missiles (Janes, 2020) , it is speculated these could be Qader or Qadir weapons, to which Iranian sources attribute a range of 124 miles and 186 miles respectively. These are reportedly derived from the Noor anti-ship missile, which is an Iranian copy of the Chinese C-802 (Drive Warzone, 2020)



  • A Bell 412 helicopter is found on the deck


Surface-to Air Missile System

  • There is a, 3 Khordad surface-to-air missile system, which is a road-mobile transport-erector-launcher plus what appears to be an associated command vehicle (Janes, 2020)  (Drive Warzone, 2020)
  • Noteworthy, is a variant of this missile system is reportedly the weapon use to shoot down a U.S. Navy RQ-4A, in the Gulf of Oman in 2019


Radar Systems

  • Iranian media reports that the vessel is also equipped with three-dimensional phased-array radar, plus advanced communication systems for electronic warfare


Side Notes, Shahid Roudaki

  • It is noteworthy that the new ship belongs to the IRGC, not the Iranian Navy. The two forces operate side-by-side and increasingly duplicate their capabilities. In general, the IRGC takes on a more adventurous role. The Navy remains comparatively more professional and is equipped with a modest fleet of warships and submarines. Shahid Roudaki, therefore, extends the reach of the IRGC, and not necessarily Iran’s conventional forces
  • Iranian media says this new ship will allow Iran to operate in “distant waters.” This may translate to the Red Sea where she might replace Saviz, or it might be further afield, possibly to the Mediterranean, where Iranian backed forces are operating in Syria. Shahid Roudaki may soon be crossing paths with Western navies
  • The converted cargo ship represents a change of direction for the IRGC. Before Shahid Roudaki, the sectarian arm of the Iranian military has kept how it uses merchant ships under the radar (USNI, 2020)




Yemen’s proxy wars explained-MIT Center for International Studies- Peter Krause, Tyler B Parker (2020)

Iran Inducts New Special Operations Ship-USNI-H.I. Sutton (2020)

Shahid Roudaki Warship, IRGC Initiative to Create Open Sea Naval Capability-English Islam Times-Staff Writers (2021)

IRGC Navy unveils new base ship-Janes Defense-Jeremy Binnie (2020)

Iran Unveils Its New Sea Base Warship That Looks Like A Floating Arms Bazaar-Drive Warzone-Thomas Newdick (2020)

IRGC Reveals New Warship; A Repurposed Merchant Vessel-Iran International-Staff Writers (2020)

Iranian Covert Operations ship Saviz still monitoring Red Sea-Covert Shores-H.I. Sutton (2019)

Saudis Rescue Injured Iranian Sailor From Covert Mothership Supporting Yemeni Rebels-Drive Warzone-Joseph Trevithick (2019)

Iran ship said to be Red Sea troop base off Yemen attacked-AP News- JON GAMBRELL (2021)

Iran Sanctions-Congressional Research Service-Kenneth Katzman (2021)

Six charts that show how hard US sanctions have hit Iran-BBC News-Staff Writers (2019)


Iran’s Largest Warship, Frigate Now in the Baltic Sea Bound for Russia-USNI-Sam LaGrone (2021)

Iranian Warship Could Be Bringing Millions of Gallons of Fuel to Venezuela-USNI-Sam LaGrone (2021)

Iran Commissions Its Massive Oil Tanker Turned Sea Base Into Service-Drive Warzone-Thomas Newdick (2021)

Iranian navy commissions converted tanker-Janes Defense-Jeremy Binnie & Alex Pape (2021)


Editing Services Provided by Milena Castulovich & Chuck Stevens