Iran sends warships to Atlantic to lay claim to big power status

Iranian Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, Iran’s deputy army chief described the mission as his navy’s longest and most challenging voyage yet.
Friday 11/06/2021
An Iranian navy helicopter landing on Iranian warship Makran in the Gulf of Oman. (AP)
An Iranian navy helicopter landing on Iranian warship Makran in the Gulf of Oman. (AP)

TEHRAN/ WASHINGTON— An Iranian destroyer and support vessel are now sailing in the Atlantic Ocean in a rare mission far from the Islamic Republic, Iran’s state TV reported on Thursday, without offering the vessels’ final destination.

The trip by the new domestically-built destroyer Sahand and the intelligence-gathering vessel Makran comes amid US media reports, citing anonymous American officials, saying the ships were bound for Venezuela.

The unusual voyage comes ahead of Iran’s June 18 presidential election, which will see voters select a successor for the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

Analysts see Iran’s Atltantic incursion as part of its attempts to pressure the United States by posturing as world-class power which has the right to privileges incumbent to that status in terms of naval deployment, ballistic and nuclear programmes and projection of military clout.

The vessels departed last month from Iran’s southern port of Bandar Abbas, said Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, Iran’s deputy army chief. He described their mission as the Iranian navy’s longest and most challenging voyage yet, without elaborating.

Iranian state TV released a short clip of the destroyer cruising through the Atlantic’s rough seas. The video likely was shot from the Makran, a converted commercial oil tanker with a launch platform for helicopters.

“The Navy is improving its seafaring capacity and proving its long-term durability in unfavourable seas and the Atlantic’s unfavourable weather conditions,” Sayyari said, adding that the warships would not call at any country’s port during the mission.

Images from Maxar Technologies dated April 28 appear to show seven Iranian fast-attack craft typically associated with its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard on the deck of the Makran. Satellite images from Planet Labs Inc. suggest it left a port at Bandar Abbas sometime after April 29. It was not immediately clear where the Makran and the destroyer are now.

The website Politico first reported in late May, citing anonymous officials, that the ships’ final destination may be Venezuela. Iran maintains close ties to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and has shipped gasoline and other products to the country amid a US sanctions campaign targeting fuel-starved Caracas. Venezuela is believed to have paid Iran, under US sanctions of its own, for the shipments.

A file picture of the Iran-made warship Makran. (AP)
A file picture of the Iran-made warship Makran. (AP)

A top aide to Maduro has denied press reports that the ships will dock there.

During a news conference May 31, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh declined to say where the Makran was going.

“Iran is always present in international waters and it has this right based on international law and it can be present in international waters,” he said. “No country is able to violate this right and I warn that no one makes miscalculations. Those who sit in glass houses should be careful.”

The fast-attack craft aboard the Makran are the type that the Revolutionary Guard use in its tense encounters with US warships in the Arabian Gulf and its narrow mouth, the Strait of Hormuz. It is not immediately clear what Venezuela’s plans would be for those craft.

“If the boats are delivered, they may form the core of an asymmetrical warfare force within Venezuela’s armed forces,” the US Naval Institute said in an earlier published analysis. “This could be focused on disrupting shipping as a means of countering superior naval forces. Shipping routes to and from the Panama Canal are near the Venezuelan coast.”

Earlier this month, fires sank Iran’s largest warship, the 207-metre Kharg, which was used to resupply other ships in the fleet at sea and conduct training exercises. Officials offered no cause for the blaze, which follows a series of mysterious explosions that began in 2019 targeting commercial ships in Mideast waterways.