The Iranian ship anchored in Indias exclusive economic zone off Lakshadweep for more than a month is serving as an embarkation platform for armed pirate protection units that Tehran deploys onboard its merchant vessels.
The revelation has triggered a diplomatic protest from India,with the Navy saying a foreign ship deploying armed crews onboard passing vessels so close to the mainland could become a dangerous precedent for other ocean-going Navies with stakes in the region.
Several countries,including China,have considerable stakes in the Arabian sea that serves as a critical lifeline for energy supplies.
Sources said the ship,MV Assa,has become a temporary base for armed ship protection units being deployed on all Iranian-flagged vessels passing through the Arabian Sea. It is estimated that protection units consisting of a few soldiers armed with small arms are boarded on ships going from the Mallaca Strait to Iran and the Gulf of Aden. Similar units are disembarked from ships from Iran to the South East Asia.
The ship had shifted its position after it was buzzed by the Navy about a month ago but returned to its position soon after. The Navy considers protection of Indias exclusive economic zone its responsibility and has in the past year cleared the area of pirates.
Why Iran is using a merchant vessel and not a naval warship for this task is not clear. Iran is the only country which transfers protection units to merchant vessel on the high seas. The norm for most ships passing through pirate-infested waters is to take onboard armed protection teams in Sri Lanka,which has become a hub for security firms offering services to vessels.