Photo by Ahmad Jafari/AFP/Mehr News
On Tuesday, the Iranian Navy announced it would be carrying out its first-ever deployment to the Atlantic Ocean. The announcement came just one day after the United Nations announced it had withdrawn an invitation to Iran to attend this week's Geneva 2 conference in Switzerland, where representatives from more than 40 nations have gathered to discuss and/or bicker about the Syrian Civil War.
Iran’s Atlantic deployment involves two ships: the Kharg, a logistical support ship that Iran sometimes tries to pass off as a “helicopter carrier," and the Sabalan, a 1970s-era frigate most notable for having been nearly sunk by the US in the 1987-88 so-called Tanker War. For decades, Iran has employed “asymmetric” tactics on the high seas, relying on assets like mines, speedboats, regular submarines, and strange little coastal submarines. This is because the country has been unable to obtain or afford many of the newest and most threatening weapons systems available to most of the rest of the world. Eager to get away from makeshift expedients in an effort to demonstrate they are, in fact, a power to be reckoned with, Iran has been making a lot of noise the past few years about expanding its shipbuilding industry and navy.
Most notable of the country's recent naval achievements was a 2011 visit to the Russian naval base at Tartus in Syria — it marked the first time the Iranian navy had been allowed through the Suez Canal since the 1979 revolution — which raised Israeli concerns that the Kharg was being used to smuggle weapons into Gaza. The Iranian Navy stepped up their tours last year, with their first post-revolution visit to the Pacific, including stops at ports in China and Sri Lanka. Since 2011, the final frontier for the Iranians has been the Atlantic Ocean. But up to this point, they haven't had much luck.
“It says something about the much-hyped Iranian shipbuilding industry when their best-suited vessels for a long-range Atlantic voyage are two ships originally built in the United Kingdom more than 35 years ago," Eric Wertheim, a naval warfare expert at the U.S. Naval Institute, told VICE News.
Though sending ships to cruise off another nation’s shores can certainly be considered threatening, the Iranian ships aren’t packing a huge arsenal. The most serious weapons the Sabalan mounts are a pair of twin anti-ship missile launchers that fire Noor anti-ship missiles … which are a knock-off of Chinese C-802s … which are a knock-off of French Exocet missiles. Exocets were made famous when Argentina used them to blow up British ships during their 1982 war over the Falkland Islands; according to Wertheim, the missiles are effective up to a range of 75 miles and carry a 360 lb. warhead. Some sources suggest that it might be possible to modify the missile to carry a WMD warhead, such as nerve gas (which the Iranians have) or a nuclear weapon (which they don’t … as far as we know). But even if the missiles could be modified, they would have limited strategic military value in all but a few improbable scenarios.
That said, the propaganda value of an Atlantic crossing is huge. Sending a ship within 15 or so nautical miles (nm) of New York City or Virginia's Naval Station Norfolk will make for great theater (and keep Iran just outside of U.S. territorial waters). Such a display would be especially sweet for the Iranians because of the ships they’re sending to do it. The Sabalan was nearly sunk in 1988 by U.S. warplanes in Operation Praying Mantis — a U.S. attack on Iranian naval facilities in retaliation for an Iranian minelaying campaign — which effectively concluded the Tanker War. Iran towed the heavily damaged ship back to port and rebuilt it, eventually returning it to service.
While power projection, training, and propaganda are the main reasons for this deployment, it’s almost certain that they will be making some stops during their three month, 25,000 nm cruise. Although the Kharg is a logistics ship and carries extra fuel, it has a range of only 10,000 nm; the Sabalan is limited to 5,000.
Navies visit foreign ports not just to fuel up and let the sailors out for a bit of a walk, but also to signal cooperation and friendship with the host country. Iran has not announced any ports of call for this trip, and according to Wertheim, any suggestions at this point are pure speculation. However, he notes that Iranian ships would probably not be turned by Cuba or Venezuela.
Port visits are interesting for other reasons beyond the diplomatic. The 30,000-ton Kharg was refitted in 1993, and in the process possibly given dry-storage compartments that could be used to carry cargo. A naval vessel cannot be stopped and searched without creating a huge diplomatic uproar, and last year’s interception of a North Korean ship carrying arms to Cuba suggests that Cuba may be in the market for weapons.
In any case, this spring, Iranian sailors may very well be tanning on the beaches of Cuba or Venezuela — when they're not engaged in metaphorical saber rattling or theoretical arms smuggling.