The Iranian ships that talked too little

The Iranian ships that talked too little
Iranian frigate Sahand (74) and forward base ship Makran, Jun 2021 via social media. Fast boats on Makran's deck at right.

The actions of the radical Iranian regime aren’t much of a puzzle.  They’re very predictable, in fact.  But to the general public, which doesn’t have access to the means of classified intelligence, the actions of the Islamic revolutionary navy when it ventures into the Atlantic Ocean remain a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

About a week ago Iran disclosed that the “flotilla” consisting of the frigate Sahand (74) and the floating base Makran (441) was in the South Central Atlantic, reportedly heading in a generally northerly direction.  Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari of the IRGC staff depicted this with a cartoonishly simply graphic showing what purported to be the ships’ progress as of 10 June 2021, without dates for any event.  The line of forward progress went to a point in the South Central Atlantic west of Angola.

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Iran also published a brief (38-second) video clip of Sahand apparently underway in the choppy waters of the Southern Atlantic.  (The waters do have the general hue and character of the Atlantic in winter in the tropics.  The task force’s position would fall between the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn, or just south of the latter.  South of the Equator, of course, it’s winter.)

Meanwhile, earlier in the month, OSINT analysts reported that Makran had been imaged in port Bandar Abbas on 28 April with seven Iranian fast boats on her deck, and on 29 April was absent from imagery.  The ships could have left on their voyage as early as 28 April.

Finally, Iranians posted on social media photos of Makran and Sahand at unknown locations (and unknown times).  The posts appeared around the time of Sayyari’s press brief.  One photo showed Makran riding very low in the water, suggesting a significant cargo of fuel.  Another showed Makran and Sahand close together.

The photo of both ships (upper right in the tweet below) shows the fast boats on Makran’s deck, with coverings fastened over them.  The analysts consulted by USNI believe they are Peykaap IIs, which appears to be a good call.

Note that another Twitter user indicates the first of the photos at that 10 June tweet is from several months ago, not from the current deployment.  The photo does show Makran riding higher than she is seen to in another photo posted on 10 June (see tweet further below from Mehdi H.).

To the extent we “know” anything at this point, that’s what we know.

Now, an expeditious discussion of what we know.

First, Iran has claimed before that a pair of ships entered the Atlantic Ocean.  This claim was made about the frigate Alvand (71) and the fleet replenishment ship Bushehr (422) back in 2016, although there was never any independently verifiable evidence that the ships made it that far from the Persian Gulf.  (Even the report of a visit to South Africa was accompanied only by photos of people meeting indoors in a room somewhere.  No South African media outlet ever carried a report of the alleged port visit – which would have excited considerable interest.)  A brief video clip from 2016 said to show the ships in the Atlantic could have been anywhere.

The U.S. Defense Department has spoken of the current voyage as if it’s actually happening, and may be bound for Venezuela.  But the last mention by a U.S. official of where the Iranian task force might be referred to the East coast of Africa back in May.  Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed concern last week about the possibility of Iran proliferating arms – e.g., delivering the fast boats on Makran, and perhaps a cargo of missiles and/or small arms, to Venezuela – but did not publicly affirm that the Iranian ships are in the Atlantic.

My sense is that they probably were on 10 June, although I doubt they are as far from a coast as Admiral Sayyari’s map indicated.  To put it most accurately, I doubt they are following the route his map indicates.  It’s not a great circle route from anywhere to anywhere the ships might want to go, and doesn’t make sense from a mariner’s perspective.

On the one hand

It’s going out of their way if they’re headed to Gibraltar (as speculated by the OSINT analysts at Tanker Trackers).

And it’s not a smart way to get to Venezuela with the least risk.

One reason to favor risk as a concern for the Iranian fleet planners is that the two ships’ speed of advance (SOA) has been very slow.  If they left Bandar Abbas by 29 April, their speed of advance to get to the point indicated by Sayyari on 10 June was about 7 knots – an SOA that argues frequent stops, but without, according to the Iranian defense ministry, any port visits.  That would typically mean anchoring offshore.

Other little pieces of evidence suggest frequent stops as well.  One is the social media photo of Sahand and Makran with their bows together.  That photo could only be taken if neither ship was making way.  Sahand, the ship we see the most of, is obviously not underway.  Wherever they were, they were stopped for that photo.

Iranian frigate Sahand (74) and forward base ship Makran, Jun 2021 via social media. Fast boats on Makran’s deck at right.

This additional group of photos shows Sahand being refueled, with neither Sahand nor Makran displaying a wake.  As speculated in my earlier reporting, the ships appear to be making stops for refueling rather than conducting the operation in transit.

Another piece of evidence is the little video clip of Sahand underway.  She appears to be making somewhere in the 12-15 kt range in that clip.  In moderate seas with whitecaps, she wouldn’t want to be keeping her speed down at 7 kts.  It makes sense that the ships would drive at more typical transit speeds when they’re underway, and that their slow SOA would be due to the frequent stops.

Now here’s the deal.  You don’t just stop in the middle of the Atlantic.  There’s nowhere to drop anchor; you have to make significant way to avoid being swept around by powerful currents, and if you need to refuel, you do it alongside so both ships are being handled with the same objective.

I have assumed all along that the Iranian flotilla would want to take the Atlantic crossing as a “jump,” without slowdowns.  The way to do that if you’re a navy task force going to Venezuela and hoping to avoid a lot of surveillance along the way is to come up the West coast of Africa until you reach an optimally short distance for the “jump” off.

Google map; author annotation

The Iranians might drive a great circle from the Cape of Good Hope to Venezuela, although that is likely to require underway refueling for the frigate in potentially heavy seas.  But Admiral Sayyari’s map doesn’t show the ships doing that.  It shows them driving up the Central Atlantic for no apparent reason.

This is not how other shipping behaves.  Through years of watching the former-Soviet navy operate in the South Atlantic, I never saw them do this. They spent their time going up and down the West coast of Africa.  If they went to Central America, they made the Atlantic crossing from (usually) the Northern or Baltic Fleet on a great circle to (usually) Cuba, and launched any further expeditions from there.

The Royal Navy occasionally has reasons to be in the middle of the South Atlantic, but it’s for specific, traceable reasons (e.g., visiting the Falklands and other British territorial islands), and transits are also made expeditiously.

Merchant shipping keeps to the expeditious great circle routes between the ports ships routinely go to and from (such transits, for coastal shipping, are usually short and show little if any movement along the intercontinental shipping routes).

Now and then, a hydrographic study is undertaken in the relatively remote waters the Iranians say their ships are transiting through.  In that case, special support arrangements are made and a task force heads to an otherwise little-trafficked area for some period of time.  The two Iranian ships are not equipped for such a project, are not the type for it, and the IRGCN is certainly not the navy for it.

Fishing vessels may operate outside heavily transited areas as well.

Here’s a snapshot from the Marine Traffic online tracker showing the typical transit lanes across the Southern Atlantic.

Screen cap of Marine Traffic depiction, maritime activity 16 Jun 2021. Note the heavily trafficked transoceanic routes.
Screen cap of Marine Traffic depiction 16 Jun 2021. Author annotation

The common route from the Cape of Good Hope to Northern South America runs to the easternmost point of Brazil and then follows the South American coastline.  The reason I doubt the Iranians would use that one is that at the western end of it, they’d be vulnerable to observation all the way to Venezuela by shipping and agencies likely to inform the U.S. of their position.  Operating off the West coast of Africa, they’d have a better chance of avoiding detection when they needed to make comfort stops.

The map also shows how little traveled is the projected (dashed-line) course shown on Admiral Sayyari’s map (the green route on the annotated Marine Traffic map).  Because it’s inefficient, pointless, higher-risk from a prudential point of view, and fuel intensive, I have to doubt – all things being equal – that it’s really what the ships are doing.

On the other hand

Suppose all things are not equal?  If Iran really – really – wants to deliver a cargo of fast boats, arms, and fuel, it remains a possibility that the ships would go out of their way to deceive U.S. intelligence.

Merely drawing lines on a map for TV soundbites isn’t going to accomplish that, of course.  But Iranian shipping has been going well out of its way for years to baffle U.S. and other Western agencies, with ships apparently swapping out electronic gear and adopting false “identities”; constantly changing names, flags, and formal ownership; the use of fake front companies; and shell games with multiple stops and cargo transfers between ports.

I would by no means put it past the IRGCN to turn off the trackable electronics during this voyage, perhaps getting a loose escort from a merchant ship, and “disappear” long enough to transfer sanctioned cargo to another ship whose identity is unknown.  The U.S. Navy isn’t talking, so we don’t have any data points to hang our hats on in that regard.

That’s one possibility.  I wouldn’t actually expect it to be undertaken in the Central Atlantic.  Doing it closer to the coast of Africa would fit the most pressing priorities, including basic safety and success for the operation.  There would be no reason to consider such possibilities, in any case, if the voyage profile depicted by Iran made more sense.

To the Med?

We may eventually know what the Iranians are doing here.  But as in 2014 and 2016, we may not.  If they get to Venezuela, we’ll know.  If they enter the Mediterranean, we’ll know.  If they go to Syria, we’ll know.

If they don’t do any of those things, we may not ever be sure.

Just a few more comments.  One, it’s possible, as suggested above, that the highest priority for this voyage is delivering sanctioned cargo.  If that isn’t the priority, it’s a bit hard to see why Makran would take off with seven fast boats strapped to the deck.  That priority may take precedence over making a visible show of the flag in one place or another.  The visible show would actually be counterproductive for the main goal.

Two, if the Tanker Trackers are right, and Iran wants to get Makran to Syria with a cargo of fuel and other goodies as a way of redeeming the failed attempt in 2019 with the Grace 1, sending Makran visibly through the Strait of Gibraltar isn’t a very good move.  No nation may stop Makran en route, given her sovereign immunity, but that doesn’t mean Israel will tolerate the delivery of anything but the fuel once it arrives in Syria.  We can assume seven fast boats and a cargo of arms would meet a speedy end from the IDF if Iran basically heralded their arrival.

Finally, over in the other hemisphere, I’m a bit dubious about the suggestion by U.S. officials that the Iranian fast boats, handed over to Venezuela, would be used to harass “Panama Canal” shipping.  The Panama Canal is further from Venezuela than the fast boats’ unrefueled operating range, and we can count on Colombia and Panama to not let the boats have their way with innocent shipping across that gap.

Venezuela might use the boats to harass shipping off her own coast, but that would have no real upside for a nation badly weakened by a slow economic and political suicide.  It would just be stupid, drawing down retaliation against Venezuela for no gain.

If the boats were to be operated by Iranian crews for some Iranian purpose in Venezuelan waters, that, of course, would be another matter.  Providing security for an Iranian threat enterprise in Venezuela is a possibility.  (So, indeed, are operations in the Caribbean by, say, Cuba, or Hezbollah in Latin America, using Venezuelan-flagged “naval” vessels.)  Harassing Panama Canal shipping isn’t a realistic possibility, however.

Secretary Austin and the U.S. Southern Command commander have made it clear that what the U.S. seriously won’t tolerate is the delivery of Iranian missiles to Venezuela.  They don’t mean short-range tactical missiles like shoulder-fired antiair missiles, which circulate freely in Latin America already.  They mean ballistic missiles, whether short- or intermediate-range, and potentially antiship cruise missiles: weapon systems that could be used to project power in the region.

As ever, we’ll see.  Iran is working pretty hard to send ambiguous signals about this naval task force.  That seems to indicate wanting to keep its activities secret more than making them a big political statement.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

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