Iran’s Atlantic naval adventure is back on the radar, with the warships heading for St. Petersburg in the Baltic Sea

Iran’s Atlantic naval adventure is back on the radar, with the warships heading for St. Petersburg in the Baltic Sea
Iranian frigate Sahand (74) seen from Makran (441), reportedly near the Cape of Good Hope in Jun 2021. Via Twitter

A curious article was published at Business Insider on 16 July.  After weeks of comprehensive silence about the small Iranian naval task force in the Atlantic Ocean, consisting of the frigate Sahand (F 74) and the afloat-basing ship Makran (441; the latter a converted oil tanker), Business Insider suddenly carried a lengthy article using those ships’ deployment as a pretext for discussing the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) – the navy branch that is not part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, known as the IRGCN, is a separate entity from the IRIN.  This is actually quite well known to anyone who follows the Iranian naval forces.  The IRIN is part of the Artesh, the national armed forces whose principal mission is the conventional defense of Iran.

The IRGC’s mission is military operations on behalf of the revolutionary regime.  Inside Iran, its forces are regime enforcers.  The IRGC is in charge of the ballistic missile forces and special weapons development.

Outside Iran, the IRGC sponsors, most famously, the Qods Force: the paramilitary special force that runs proxy operations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.  Qassem Soleimani, killed by U.S. forces in January 2020, was the commander of the Qods Force, and had been responsible for the deaths and grisly maiming of hundreds of Americans in IED attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Qassem Soleimani (Image: YouTube screen grab via CBS News)

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The IRGC, although administratively managed through the defense ministry, takes its orders from Ayatollah Khamenei and the ruling clerical council.  The IRGCN’s principal responsibility is routinely stated by Western analysts as defense and force presence in the Persian Gulf, with fast boats, small missile-armed patrol craft, and mini-subs.  The IRIN, by contrast, is Iran’s “blue water” navy, operating the capital ships (frigates and corvettes), support ships, and submarines.

Both the frigate Sahand and the afloat-basing ship Makran are IRIN ships.  Makran’s designation is proclaimed with almost laughable prominence in gigantic letters on her bridge tower: I.R.I.N.S. 441.  The Iranian regime wants the world to know that Makran belongs to the IRIN – however many IRGCN fast boats she may have been carrying on her deck when she left Bandar Abbas at the end of April.

And the Business Insider article on 16 July is at great pains to convey the point that the IRIN is not the IRGCN.  (Don’t neglect to read it; I think you’ll agree that that seems to be the real purpose of publishing what is otherwise a largely irrelevant history.)

Why would that be?  We’ll see shortly why the timing may have been what it was; i.e., on Friday.  But the reason is presumably that the United States designated the IRGC a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) in April 2019 – a designation that includes the IRGCN.

The branches of the IRGC are thus under U.S. sanctions, and could be subject to the forms of prohibition and interdiction incident to that condition.

How important is that IRIN-IRGCN distinction?

Makran carrying a load of IRGCN fast boats on the Atlantic deployment is actually just one of the factors militating against an old-school, face-value view of the ship’s naval status.

Two others are a couple of developments in the last four years.  In November 2017, Khamenei executed a “budgetary” and organizational move that, while eye-watering in its bureaucratic arcaneness, effectively gave the IRGC the ability to gain control of the elements of the national armed forces that can be used to project power outside Iran.

It wasn’t a wholesale resubordination of the Artesh – the national armed forces – to the IRGC.  There could have been no sale for a move so crude.  Rather, it gave the IRGC budgetary power over the Artesh order of battle that would be used for any external fight; e.g., in Iraq or Syria, for starters.

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

This … describes a shift from the current order, in which the national army controls the tools of conventional power projection, to a new order in which the revolutionary mullahs control those tools through the IRGC.

Warplanes, assault helicopters, and battlefield rocket launchers are the tools of territorial conquest, as a means of military power projection.  The national army has retained command of them since the revolution in 1979.  That has been a source of internal power-balancing for Iran, but also a relatively stabilizing factor for the larger region, since the character and heritage of the Iranian national army militate against its becoming a tool of military predation abroad.

Khamenei intends to change that.  If the IRGC has command of the tools of conventional power projection – in a land war, that means territorial maneuver and conquest – Iran will have the structural elements in place to embark on a new career.

Khamenei’s method is typically indirect; i.e., to shift funding around and call the whole thing a reprioritizing of the budget.  But this is a strategic move of game-changing proportions.  This is not being done for “budgetary” purposes.

The relationship of the IRGC and the Artesh took a big evolutionary step at that point.  The Iranian reporting of that event didn’t mention the IRGCN and IRIN, but in spite of the legitimately understood split in culture and priorities of the two naval organizations, it’s unlikely they were unaffected.

A key indicator that they probably were affected is the second of the developments mentioned above.  That development is the subsequent move of the IRIN headquarters (apparently still in progress) from Tehran to Bandar Abbas, where the IRGCN headquarters is already located.

That move obviously can’t be about putting greater institutional distance between the IRIN and the IRGCN.

And don’t get carried away by the point that the move takes the IRIN to Bandar Abbas, rather than the IRGCN to Tehran.  The real point is that the move takes the IRIN out of Tehran – away from the locus of Persian culture, politics, and industry, the IRIN’s natural constituency.  An IRIN co-located with the IRGCN in Bandar Abbas will be more isolated from national institutional influences, and more subject to the regime control exercised over the IRGCN.

This is a marginal shift, no doubt.  The IRIN has a long history of comparative independence, something Iran watchers observed during the years of sanctions on Saddam Hussein.  During those years, the IRIN and IRGCN sometimes found themselves at cross purposes in their operation of lucrative sanctions-evading networks in the Persian Gulf.  The institutional split can’t be altered overnight.

But in 2021, take a step back, and recognize that it would be – well, we must be blunt: it would be deeply silly to suggest that the IRIN had some motive or backing from Iranian institutions, independent of the clerical regime, to deploy ships to the Atlantic for a show of the national flag.  That proposition is preposterous.

The Sahand and Makran are in the Atlantic, far from home, in an incipient power-projection role, to execute policy for Khamenei and the mullahs.  As a matter of formal subordination, they might as well be in the IRGCN.

That’s a profound point.  It looks like the Business Insider article was published to try to spike it before anyone thought about it very hard.  In the Persian Gulf the IRIN-IRGCN distinction may make a difference.  But on a long-haul deployment of forces with a mission to rove the seas, in which the homeland “defense of Iran” is not at issue, there can be no question who decides what national will and national interests are for Iran.  It’s the same revolutionary regime that directly commands the IRGC.  (And don’t forget, Makran left home carrying IRGCN combat systems.)

So just imagine what happened on Friday

We’ve been waiting weeks now to see if the Sahand and Makran pop up again somewhere – somewhere other than back in Bandar Abbas, after their last reported position in the middle of the South Atlantic on 10 June 2021.  The ships could have made it to Syria twice by now, without even breaking a sweat.  Yet they haven’t been seen going through the Strait of Gibraltar, where they were, willy-nilly, fated to be seen by the comprehensive sensor coverage maintained there.

On Friday we learned why.  A NATO maritime patrol force reported detecting them 50 nautical miles (NM) west of La Coruña (Corunna) – a port city on Spain’s northwest coast – just outside the Bay of Biscay.

Sahand and Makran bypassed the Strait of Gibraltar.  It kind of looks like the out-of-the-blue backgrounder at Business Insider had a tip from someone, although the BI piece doesn’t mention updated positions on the ships at all.

Makran and Sahand in the position reported by Tanker Trackers from satellite imagery. They can complete a trip from that location to St. Petersburg by 24 July at a sustained speed of 13.5 kts. Google map; author annotation

Additional information quickly emerged:  Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had announced on 13 July that Iranian ships would participate in the celebration of Russian Navy Day on 25 July in St. Petersburg.

The NATO detection prompted Western analysts to unearth this tidbit.  In short order, the open-source analysts at Tanker Trackers found Makran in satellite imagery on 16 July, in the area indicated by the NATO tactical reporting.  As Tanker Trackers note, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency was also reporting the impending visit to St. Petersburg at that point.

My calculations based on the position given by tanker Trackers indicate the ships can make it to St. Petersburg by 24 July at a perfectly feasible, moderate sustained speed of 13.5 knots.

In the rare glimpses we’ve had of the ships underway during this deployment, they have displayed wakes indicative of just such a speed range.  Their average speed of advance has been much, much slower because they haven’t been underway making way the whole time.  They apparently have spent most of their time stopped, presumably at anchor off the coast of Africa and/or the islands west of Africa.

In the waters off Europe, they won’t do that.  I’d expect them to keep up the pace and arrive without further interruptions in St. Petersburg in time for Russian Navy Day.  The frigate Sahand, the one that would start to run low on fuel, can make it from wherever she was last topped off by Makran, especially given that she’ll be close to the coast the entire time and could make emergency stops if necessary.

One thing we haven’t seen reporting on is what still lingers on Makran’s deck, where the IRGCN fast boats were stowed when she left Bandar Abbas.

The fast boats were still on Makran some weeks later, if we are to accept the imputed timing of images posted around the point when the ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope.

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

The satellite imagery from 16 July posted by Tanker Trackers isn’t high-enough resolution to clarify what’s still there.

Assuming the NATO patrol assets have visual contact on Makran, we can hope to discover soon if the boats are still present.  Since we don’t know at the moment, there’s no point in exhaustive speculation about what may have happened to the boats, if they are no longer on the deck.

But since the last report on the two ships, on 10 June, there has not only been time to get to Syria: there has been plenty of time to offload both the fast boats and much of Makran’s fuel load to another ship.  There’s more than one way to get contraband to, say, Venezuela, and Iran has an extensive history of playing shell games with prohibited cargo to move it from point A to a destination that may represent point E, F, or G by the time it gets there.

In the meantime, let’s not kid ourselves.  The Business Insider article protests just noticeably too much.  When the naval ships of Iran’s revolutionary regime load up IRGCN weapons and sally forth to visit Russia’s historic Baltic Fleet naval port, it doesn’t matter that their formal registry is with the IRIN.  They’re doing the bidding of the Islamic revolutionary regime — and it’s part of a sea change in the use and subordination of forces with inherently forward-operating, as well as homeland-defending, roles.

It’s wise not to oversell Iran’s emerging capabilities, which remain rudimentary in comparison to major navies.  But we can expect to see more such evolutions in Iranian force command and institutional relations, as more power projection weapons are deployed routinely from Iran to the surrounding theater, and beyond.  When the Iranian regime is replenished with cash and trade opportunities, military displays, as well as weapons procurement,  terrorism, and proxy wars, are where those funds go.

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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