They’ve been saying they were going to do it, and now they’re on the way. A pair of Iranian navy ships, the frigate Sabalan and supply ship Kharg, left Bandar Abbas this morning headed for the Atlantic Ocean.
It has been inevitable that the Iranian navy would make good on its promise to deploy to the Atlantic. Its ships made a voyage to China in 2013, and have been conducting extended patrols in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea since late 2008. An Atlantic expedition has been by no means beyond Iran’s capabilities for some time now.
It isn’t clear yet what route the ships will take. The route through the Suez Canal and Mediterranean would normally be the most likely. On either route (the other being a southerly course around Africa), the ships would need to be able to stop somewhere to refuel. Iran will presumably want to show the flag as well: stop for real port visits, diplomatic events, and orchestrated recreation. Potential venues for that in the Mediterranean include Malta and Algeria; ports in Egypt, Syria, and even Montenegro, although unlikely, are not out of the question. On the southern and western coasts of Africa, possible stops include Tanzania, South Africa, Ghana, Mauritania, and Senegal, all of which Iran has positive relations with. Nairobi is also a possibility; like South Africa, Kenya would make a higher-profile, politically interesting stop.
The objective will presumably be to visit Cuba and Venezuela, and possibly Nicaragua and even Ecuador as well. The Iranian ships would have time to make that circuit in the three months they plan to be deployed.
As regular readers know, Iran will be joining the Russia and China club in sending warships on deployments to Latin America. The Iranian ships aren’t particularly capable; Sabalan and Kharg have been the go-to platforms for long voyages, because they’re the only ones Iran has that can handle the extended deployments. The depth isn’t there, in the Iranian order of battle, for the Islamic Revolutionary Iranian Navy to make a habit of this kind of thing.
But it’s a measure of Iran’s seriousness about her geopolitical plans. And she has other ways of reaching into the Western hemisphere, from her patronage of Hezbollah, which is all over Latin America, to her joint project with Venezuela to put a missile site off the coast of Maracaibo.
A senior Iranian official, who was recently appointed to one of the highest consultative positions with the Iranian government, was the man responsible for approving the 1994 attack on the Jewish center in Buenos Aires in which 85 people were killed. Nothing has changed in Iran’s radical posture; sending warships to the Western hemisphere is not a way of trying to be more like the status-quo powers, but is rather a way of showing what a radical, Shia Islamist power can do.
It is tempting to bring up what happened to Sabalan the last time she got crossways of the United States Navy. And who am I to resist temptation? But it’s not 1988 anymore, and in the years since, it’s America that has changed, at least in terms of political leadership. One more thing bears pointing out: if sanctions had not just been loosened on Iran, she wouldn’t have the wherewithal to make this naval expedition to visit her radical pals in Central America.