The Iranian navy is doing this one the hard way. The two ships in the “29th Flotilla” task group heading for the Atlantic Ocean will make their transit by the Cape of Good Hope, rather than going through the Mediterranean Sea.
According to Iranian authorities, the ships will stop in South Africa for a port visit on the way to the Atlantic.
They’re “doing it the hard way” because the Iranians don’t have a capability to do underway refueling. On the African route, the frigate Sabalan will be constrained by her fuel limitations on longer, less efficient port hops than she would be on the Mediterranean route. By going through the Med, the ships could hew more closely to a “great circle” route, which is always the most time-distance efficient way to move in maritime space around our globe. The Iranians’ in-port fueling options would be obvious going through the Med as well.
That said, the all-important criterion for the Iranians is probably minimizing the risk of the jump across the Atlantic. From the Strait of Gibraltar, it’s a long haul to either Venezuela or Cuba – a long haul out of reach of land. Although either distance is nominally within Sabalan’s unrefueled range of 4,500 nautical miles (5,000 statute mi/9,000 km), both destinations lie between 3,600-4,000 nautical miles from Gibraltar. Making the trip at 15 knots (nautical miles per hour), a typical transit speed, would run Sabalan’s fuel down far below a prudent level during the journey. Even slowing the transit to an excruciatingly slow pace of 12 knots would still put Sabalan below 40% fuel by the time she got to Venezuela or Cuba. No mariner wants to be in that position if he can help it. There is no margin for error – to include bad weather – in such a plan.
Doubling the Cape of Good Hope, by contrast, will position the Iranian task group to move up the West coast of Africa, stopping to refuel at least once after departing South Africa, and then make the jump from northwestern Africa: presumably either Senegal or Mauritania, with both of which nations Iran has been assiduously cultivating ties in recent years.
This route, although it entails very long legs around Africa, will mean an Atlantic jump of only 2,500-2,700 nautical miles, assuming the ships’ first stop in the Americas is Venezuela. It minimizes the length of the riskiest part of the journey.
Iran hasn’t named a date when the ships will arrive in South Africa. They are likely to stop first at Durban, on the southeast coast. I doubt Sabalan is going all the way from Bandar Abbas to Durban without fueling, however; she could make it, in theory, but the trip would be about 4,000 nautical miles. The ships have probably stopped, or will stop, for fueling in one or more of Fujairah, Oman; Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania; or possibly even Mombasa, Kenya.
A non-stop transit at 15 knots would take about 11 days from Bandar Abbas; with fuel stops figured in, we can add 1-3 days to that. (If fuel arrangements are certain, the ships could also travel a little faster and make better time.) The Iranian ships reportedly left port on 21 January, so they are likely to arrive in their first South African port between 2 and 4 February.
We’ll see where they go after the first port. They may make stops in both Durban and Simonstown, which is located next to Cape Town, another 1,000 nautical miles around the Cape from Durban. It’s a very long trip, on the African route.