We’ll know in a few days if Iran’s “44th fleet,” consisting of the frigate Alvand and the supply ship Bushehr, has been crossing the Atlantic, as suggested by reporting from last week.
Iran’s announcements about going into the Atlantic Ocean have been imprecise and impressionistic. So perhaps it can be argued that Iranian officials never said their navy was going to cross the Atlantic, but only said the Iranian ships were going to be in it. Iranian news headlines spoke of crossing the Atlantic, but hey, what can you do about the media.
If the Iranian ships have been crossing the Atlantic, they’ll have to show up in Venezuela, Nicaragua, or Cuba in the next week.
Assuming they don’t, we can conclude that Iran’s 44th fleet wasn’t crossing the Atlantic, and probably wasn’t going to.
In fact, at this point, it’s not an unreasonable bet that the 44th fleet hasn’t been in Tanzania or South Africa either, as reported by Iranian news agencies over the past month. There has been no reporting to corroborate that from other news sources – which there would be, if Iranian warships actually called in Dar es Salaam, or Durban, South Africa. Either one would be a big deal. There would be independent local coverage of it, if it really happened. But there hasn’t been.*
Even the reports in African news clearinghouses come from the Iranian media. And none of the images used with the reports actually shows ships or people in a place you could prove was Dar es Salaam or Durban (or was related to the supposed port visits).
One report, in fact, seems to show what we’re supposed to assume is an Iranian warship heading into Dar es Salaam – but the image is named “PLAN_ship_Tanzania_400x300.jpg,” and it’s rather obviously the bow of a Chinese Type 903-class supply ship, probably the Taihu, which visited Dar es Salaam in May 2016 with China’s 22nd flotilla.
In a similar vein, the video supposedly showing the Iranian ships in the Atlantic, posted on or just before 22 November, could have been taken anywhere.
This report, meanwhile, which seems to bring in the comments of an independent third party about the supposed port visit in Tanzania, actually does no such thing. The headline reads: “Tanzanian Military Official Hails Iranian Navy’s Presence in East African Waters.” But this is what the article actually says:
Speaking at a dinner ceremony in Iran’s Embassy in Tanzania, Admiral Seyed Omid Golestaneh said in a recent meeting, a deputy commander of the Tanzanian army acknowledged that the presence of the Iranian naval flotilla in the East African waters “has established security” in the region.
The person being quoted, in other words, is the Iranian admiral. And there is still zero evidence of an actual port visit, or of the meeting or dinner ceremony referenced in the report.
We wouldn’t have to be so skeptical, if Iran hadn’t pulled this nonsense before. In the first few months of 2014, Iran teased the repeated assertion that her warships were heading across the Atlantic. The actual location of the ships wasn’t independently verified for about four months. It became clear that the ships never crossed the Atlantic. During that time, the ships were occasionally said to be visiting ports in the Arabian Peninsula/Horn of Africa area. But at no time was there ever verifiable documentation of those visits. Eventually, the ships returned to Bandar Abbas.
To date, all we have about the supposed grand tour of the 44th fleet comes from Iranian sources, and is “demonstrated” by file photos of the Iranian ships, photos of unidentified people that could have been taken anywhere, and images of Iranian sailors on a ship or a pier, cropped close and revealing nothing about the location.
If someone with verifiable, independently obtained information about the “port visits” can come forward, I’d love to hear from you. Otherwise, I’m going to assume this is another Iranian hoax.
* One possibility, in either location, is that the Iranian ships anchored offshore, with no fanfare. In that case, they wouldn’t have been making an official port visit (although they would have needed to coordinate the stop in advance with South Africa or Tanzania). They would have checked in with the harbor master and might even have sustained visits from Iranian dignitaries (i.e., via hired harbor craft).
An image posted by Mehr News purports to show the Iranian ambassador to South Africa meeting with Admiral Omid Gostaneh during the “visit” to Durban. The civilian in the center of the photo is apparently Ambassador Mohsen Movahedi Ghomi (or Qomi), although none of the other men’s identities can be verified. The meeting looks like it is taking place in a naval venue, and could be aboard one of the ships.
But it could also be ashore somewhere in Iran. The room is just a space with naval wall décor in an unidentified location.
It certainly isn’t evidence of a port visit by the ships in Durban, during the time indicated (the days before 21 November). Notably, the embassy website makes no mention of a visit by Iranian warships to Durban. That’s very uncharacteristic; embassies and consulates always post photos and reports of such visits.
If you have experience of these visits, you immediately recognize how coy Iran is being about the “evidence.” Normally, there are dozens of images to commemorate such events, with every location identified and all dignitaries meticulously named in the captions. Iran’s press images for these supposed port visits are so information-free as to be misleading.
An example of an outright misleading image is in Algemeiner’s article from 22 November, which I’m sure was posted in good faith, and was based on the use of the image by Iranian media. The caption reads “Iranian warships in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo: Screenshot.”
But the ships are Kaman-class patrol boats, originally La Combattante II boats built for Iran in France in the 1970s. It’s not just that they aren’t the ships reported to be in the 44th fleet task group. The problem is that they are short-range craft used only within a day’s transit of Iran’s own naval bases, and haven’t been anywhere near the Atlantic since they made the trip from the shipyard in Cherbourg to their new home in Iran, decades ago.
Iranian media use this image often (it’s been around since at least 2013), but it is never representative of the ships actually taking part in a long-range deployment.
Bottom line, in any case: there is no reason to bend over backward to make non-evidence fit Iran’s narrative. A better course is to wait for real evidence.