In the last 24 hours, Iran has pumped out a story through every national press outlet that the “29th Fleet,” the naval task group that reportedly includes the frigate Sabalan and the replenishment ship Kharg, entered Djibouti for a port visit on Monday, 7 April.
Back in March, Iranian press outlets reported that ships of the 29th Fleet had entered Salalah, Oman for a port visit. There was never any independent evidence of this, and the Iranian reports were cagey about precisely which ships were involved. It was a Times of Oman story – sourced to the Iranian navy, and containing no independent confirmation – that named the frigate Sabalan as one of the ships in Salalah, although it also named two other ships that were never identified as going to the Atlantic. There was no mention of where Kharg was.
With the new report about Djibouti, Iranian media are being very explicit that the ships involved are Sabalan and Kharg. But the problem, again, is that there is no independent evidence that the ships are actually in port in Djibouti. And Djibouti is a place where there would be independent evidence.
The Port of Djibouti is the main hub for the various navies participating in antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean. Besides the U.S., several other nations (e.g., France, China, Japan) now maintain shore facilities there to support their ships. (The U.S. has a major regional command, Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, in Djibouti.) The Gulf of Aden and the approaches to Djibouti are crawling with warships from Europe, the United States, and Asia, which rotate in and out of port in Djibouti on a weekly basis. There is frequent coordination and joint training between the foreign navies and Djibouti’s forces, and a regular dispatch of images from diplomatic and seagoing events.
It would be quite atypical for the Iranian warships to show up in Djibouti without exciting the normal level of interest and reporting. But, as with the supposed March visit to Salalah, the supposed Djibouti visit is attended by none of the usual outbreak of images and video from local sources, nor any reporting of diplomatic or navy-to-navy interactions.
This is in contrast, incidentally, to the visits of Iranian warships to Port Sudan, up the coast. There’s been the usual amount of verifiable evidence that they happened.
Two other discrepancies arise with the reported Djibouti port visit. One is that the Iranian navy is quoted as saying that the ships have been underway for 73 days, conducting operations in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. I wrote back in March that it would be impossible for the Iranian ships – which were supposedly going to the Atlantic – to operate in these waters without being seen by the other navies in the area. But there’s also the point that, if the 29th Fleet was in Salalah for a port visit in March, then it hasn’t been underway for 73 days.
Perhaps that seeming misstatement is an artifact of translation. And who knows, the second discrepancy may be one too. In some of the reports, the Iranian navy states that the ships will now be on their way to the Atlantic Ocean, after the Djibouti port visit. That assertion seems to conflict with the Iranian navy’s original comments on the Atlantic expedition, back in January.
It would certainly mean Sabalan and Kharg can’t be back home in Bandar Abbas by 21 April or so, the 90-day mark from their deployment date. By now, however, it has become clear that the Iranians aren’t trying to maintain a consistent narrative on what these ships are doing. Their “disclosures” are all over the place, and are offered with zero evidence in each case.
It remains quite possible that the Iranian naval ships Sabalan and Kharg have been somewhere else all this time. The only clues as to where are negative ones: the complete absence of reporting on the ships from any independent source. I very much doubt the ships could have gone into commercial or naval ports in South Asia or the Horn of Africa without being noticed and reported on by someone. They couldn’t do so in most of Africa, for that matter. It’s very unlikely that they could operate in Central America without being seen and reported.
There are thinly populated coastal areas of Southeast Africa where the ships might have been able to remain undetected for an extended period of time. But no positive clues would drive our attention there. For now, their activities since mid-January remain a mystery.
A little naval drill in the Strait of Hormuz
More independently substantiated has been Iran’s reporting of a joint naval exercise with Pakistan in the Strait of Hormuz this week. The Iranians have been flogging this relentlessly in the media. Pakistan has been more “meh.” But it does, at least, appear to have actually happened.
Pakistan announced in March that her navy would conduct a port visit in Bandar Abbas from 5-8 April. The units involved are an Agosta-class submarine, PNS Hashmat, a Jurrat-class missile patrol boat, PNS Quwwat, and a tanker-utility ship, PNS Rasadgar. (Pakistan didn’t send a frigate, in other words, which is what would count as a major combatant in the Pakistani navy.) The last Pakistani navy visit to Iran was four years ago.
This Pakistani blogger, who specializes in defense issues, cites a navy official:
According to a well-informed source in the Pakistan Navy who was contacted by this scribe to comment on this development, it was intimated that the visit was purely a routine matter. When specifically asked whether it was somehow meant to allay Iranian concerns of increasing defence and military ties with the Gulf, especially Pakistan’s growing maritime relations with the Saudi and Qatari naval forces, the source rejected any such case; he reiterated that Pakistan Navy routinely engages with regional naval forces (excepting India, of course) from time to time. The timing of this visit with the tense Saudi Arabia vs. Iran debacle in Pakistan’s domestic media was, he said, “purely coincidental”.
The Terminal X blogger alludes to the growing ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, a relationship cemented in March with a naval visit to Jeddah (notably, on the Red Sea side of the Arabian Peninsula). The Pakistanis made rather more of that visit in the media at home, whereas they have been largely silent about the visit this month to Iran. The Pakistanis have made at least one naval port visit annually to Saudi Arabia in the last several years, in contrast to the hiatus in their visits to Iran. Counterbalancing Iran’s incipient outward push from the Gulf is a natural move for the two Sunni neighbors.
But I assume the Pakistanis don’t want to take sides against Iran – burn bridges – as I wouldn’t want to do, if I were Pakistan. Remaining engaged with Iran, especially on a topic as geopolitically important as the security of the Strait of Hormuz (SOH), is just good diplomatic hygiene. And conducting a naval drill emphasizes the point that Pakistan, like Iran, has a navy, and a national interest in the Strait of Hormuz.
Zachary Keck has a nice summary at The Diplomat of the recent ups and downs in Iranian-Pakistani relations, which included Pakistan’s detention of four Iranian border guards, released on Sunday during the Pakistani navy’s port visit. I don’t necessarily agree that the warm-up in relations between Islamabad and Tehran will be temporary. But I do think it’s pragmatic on Pakistan’s part, and is being undertaken because Pakistan, like everyone else in the region, foresees the day when the U.S. will no longer be guaranteeing maritime freedom and security in the SOH and Persian Gulf. A lot can happen in the next three years. Pakistan wants her hand in the regional power arrangements – and that requires useful relations with both Iran and the Arab Gulf nations.
On Monday, just before the joint exercise with the Pakistanis, Iran also held a naval drill in the SOH with the Omani navy. Iran and the Omanis have held several such exercises since 2010, when they inked an agreement on joint cooperation for security in the SOH.
This pair of exercises comes at a time, as I discussed last week, when there have been multiple reports of commercial ships being fired at in the SOH by unidentified brigands. Iran has created a pretext for exercising military power in the SOH before (see here and here), and frankly is probably doing it again. The brigands in speedboats described as attacking the merchant ships in the last couple of weeks sound like Iranian paramilitary (Qods) operatives.
Assuming it’s Iran creating the hazard to merchant ships in the SOH, this move would be very similar in principle to what Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine: clandestinely (and not always so clandestinely) creating situations Russia is “bound” to respond to with force. It’s just a matter of time until Iran sees an opportunity to make a game-changing move in the SOH.
Again, the move won’t be a destructive one. Concerns about Iran trying to sink something in the SOH and inconvenience global shipping are outdated. The move will be designed instead to affirm Iran’s veto over activities in the Strait. The goal is for maritime shippers and the nations that dispatch them to acknowledge Iran as the ultimate maritime authority over the SOH, rather than the United States.
In that context, Pakistan isn’t “joining” Iran so much as putting down a marker of national interest in where this process is going. The Pakistanis want the mullahs to know that Pakistan is in this one, and has to be considered and consulted. The emerging window of opportunity that Iran sees is visible to everyone else, outside of the United States and Western Europe, where the blindfold of complacency is still wrapped securely over our eyes. Where policy priorities go, the navies will quickly follow.