KRISTIANSAND/MANDAL/PERSIAN GULF: A small, marine-grey vessel passes the American aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Hormuz Strait in the Persian Gulf. It is December 2018 and the tension between the US and Iran is high. Both countries want to show strength in their own ways.
An Iranian flag in the mast shows where the small vessel belongs. On the wheelhouse, a blue mark reveals that it belongs to the feared Revolutionary Guard's special forces. The symbols in the mark are expressive: an automatic rifle in a firm grip. A globe. And verses from the Koran: "Prepare for them what you can of strength".
The grey vessel is keeping a good pace. Machine guns are mounted at the bow and at the stern.
Along the ship's side stretches a characteristic line of red fenders. Together with the ship's line, they reveal that the vessel is identical to a known SAR vessel developed and built in Mandal.
Fædrelandsvennen has over time collected information, photos and videos of armored patrol boats used by Iranian police authorities and the Revolutionary Guard. We have found several examples of vessels with Search And Rescue (SAR) boat design from the shipwright Båtservice being used for internal security and military purposes.
The Revolutionary Guard is on the US list of terrorist organizations and is actively used by the ruling clergy to suppress its own population. In the fall, the Revolutionary Guard's Basji militia has been active against Iranian demonstrators fighting for women's rights.
Banned further export
In March 2012, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stopped the export of several SAR vessels from Mandal to Iran. The reason given was that they could be used militarily, as the US had warned Norway for several years.
The Americans were particularly concerned about the boats' good maneuverability and speed up to 43 knots, which made them particularly suitable for military use.
Båtservice CEO Bjørn W. Fjellhaugen repeatedly expressed that the fear was unfounded.
"These are SAR vessels. Not war vessels,» he said in the Båtservice production hall at Gismerøya in 2014.
Fjellhaugen did not hide how annoyed he was with the position of the Norwegian government. Several hundred million NOK and many peoples’ jobs were at stake.
After the rejection, the shipyard mobilized heavily to fulfill the last contract with Iran.
The director claimed that the SAR vessels were only to be used for civilian rescue missions. Fædrelandsvennen's new findings show that the history must be rewritten.
18 different incidents
After searching international news media, Iranian propaganda channels, and analyzing satellite photos, we can now reveal that vessels with SAR vessel design are used for ship hijacking and military patrol missions in Iran.
In 18 cases, we have made unique findings of armed vessels with Båtservice design.
In seven of the cases, we have observed such vessels that are affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard.
10 times, the vessels belong to the border police, and in one case, vessels from the Revolutionary Guard and border police operate together.
The first observation of an armed vessel is at the Revolutionary Guard's naval base in the port city of Bandar Abbas in 2016.
The freshest observation is in the Hormuz Strait in 2022, as well as satellite images showing that one of the Revolutionary Guard's vessels has been moored at their naval base in September and October of this year.
See the transformation, from SAR vessel in Norway to an armed patrol boat in Iran:
From "rescue" to "lion"
Fædrelandsvennen’s findings also show that some of the first SAR vesseks exported from Mandal are still sending out AIS signals, as is the practice for vessels used for rescue missions.
The signals identify the vessels and show where they are located.
But the last five SAR vessels sold by Båtservice are no longer visible on sites that map AIS signals.
Originally, these five were part of the "Nejat" class, which means rescue. Fædrelandsvennen can reveal that Iran's military now refers to the class as "Haidar," Persian for lion.
Today, director Fjellhaugen says that his task was to sell boats to Iran and that he was assured that none of them would have weapons on them.
But he is surprised by our findings. In an interview, he argues that Iran may can stolen his technology and ship design. But the he is shown photo evidence that a SAR vessel sold from Båtservice in Mandal, named «Nejat 4», has in deed been weaponized.
When show the photo, he calls home to his wife and asks her to find a list of the last vessels to Iran. His wife finds the document and reads out the name of the next-to-last one: «Nejat 4.»
There is silence in the room for a few seconds. We say that our ambition has been to investigate whether the Americans' concern about arming SAR vessels from Mandal has come true.
"Yes, it has come true," Fjellhaugen states.
He says he has never seen such images as Fædrelandsvennen shows him:
"We haven't seen a thing."
"When you see the images of Nejat 4 with weapons. What do you think then?"
Fjellhaugen lowers his voice.
"It is sad to see something like that," he says.
Read the interview with Fjellhaugen here.
Wikileaks and the US
During the war against Iraq in the 1980s, the Revolutionary Guard developed a tactic of swarming around larger ships with many small, high-speed boats. Both larger military ships, civilian container ships, and tankers were attacked.
This was the background for the United States' early interest in the SAR vessels from Båtservice.
The concern was first made public through the so-called Wikileaks documents, which Fædrelandsvennen previously revealed.
The SAR letters disappeared
Fædrelandsvennen can now document that at least two of the Search And Rescue vessels sold by Båtservice have been armed.
In February 2012, a month before Norwegian authorities stopped the export, Båtservice delivered a SAR vessel named Nejat 4 to the Iranian company Tavous Darya.
A picture in the Norwegian online newspaper Skipsrevyen shows the vessel and a sister ship at the pier of Båtservice's shipyard on the island of Kish.
Next to Nejat 4 are the letters SAR - an abbreviation for "Search And Rescue", the international symbol for rescue vessels.
Nine years later, the vessel appears in images from the celebration of the anniversary of the Iranian revolution outside Kish. At that time, a machine gun has been mounted on the forecastle. There is a mounting for a machine gun at the back.
But the SAR letters have disappeared.
Fædrelandsvennen finds armed boats of the same model with a range of Iranian actors. The Revolutionary Guard's special forces and border police have all used and armed these boats. They can be found both in the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Hormuz Strait.
They no longer have visible names or can be identified with AIS signals in common. We cannot say with certainty how many boats with SAR vessel design the Iranians have and where they are all built.
Iran does not release such information, and the mapping is based on publicly available images. Iranian civilian and military authorities have not responded to our inquiries. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs cites confidentiality and will not provide any information on its handling of the case.