After an exhausting info warfare deployment, Iranian navy task force purports to be almost home

After an exhausting info warfare deployment, Iranian navy task force purports to be almost home
IRINS Makran (441) near the Great Belt Bridge, Denmark Straits entering the Baltic 22 Jul 2021. Local webcam via @WarshipCam, Twitter

Two recent reports seem to indicate that at least one of the ships in the deployed Iranian naval task force – IRINS Makran (441), the converted forward-basing ship – has recently been in the Gulf of Aden, between Yemen and Somalia, heading home to Iran after an unheralded transit through the Mediterranean.

When we last caught up with the task force, which includes the frigate Sahand (F74), it was headed to St. Petersburg to assist in celebrating Russia’s Navy Day.  That was in late July.  The ships were observed entering the Baltic through the Denmark Straits, were thoroughly documented during their stay in St. Petersburg, and were observed again exiting the Denmark Straits in early August.

In mid-August, there were hints that the Makran was hiding its position with the aid of false AIS transmissions, possibly from both Makran and another ship being used to expand and complicate the deception.  (Makran may also have simply been silent.)  Earlier, when Makran first entered the Baltic through the Denmark Straits in July, there were interesting indications of an attempt to create deception just before entry with false AIS transmissions.  So there’s a possible pattern to take into account.

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The AIS transmissions captured in the tweets appear to be false representations of “Makran” as a South Korean vessel.  I doubt Makran actually made those transmissions; the transmitter was probably another source injecting deceptive AIS data to confuse the picture of where the real Makran was.  It was noted by several observers that Makran Actual turned her AIS off just outside the straits.

After the ships’ departure from the Baltic on 4 August, coast watchers in the Strait of Gibraltar (STROG) looked for the two ships for several weeks in August, as the task force was expected to go to Syria.  AIS transmissions seemingly from Makran suggested a feint toward the STROG 14-15 August.

Shortly before that, AIS transmissions seemed to suggest Makran was lingering in the vicinity of a French island in the Bay of Biscay – an unlikely proposition, given that no one ever reported seeing the huge, distinctive, politically interesting ship near the island, whose environs are viewed daily by numerous French and other boaters in the area.

A lingering Makran might have escaped visual detection better off Morocco.  Presumably the two ships were lingering somewhere.

In either case, France or Morocco, being close enough to shore for anchoring would have been less important for Makran than for the frigate Sahand, which has the imperative to conserve fuel.  Moreover, it’s not normal practice for warships to linger randomly inside the territorial seas (TTW) of another nation (out to 12 nautical miles) – which is what Makran would have been doing in the positions off the French island.  Remaining outside French TTW (or Moroccan) is what I would expect, though the ship might linger in the contiguous zone, which is the zone from 12-24 NM.  That too would be odd for a warship, however.

Makran (or Sahand) going back and forth for days near or in another nation’s TTW would be most peculiar.  Hanging out just off a nation’s coast is something greased for warships with diplomatic niceties, unless the purpose is to make a point like the freedom-of-navigation operations U.S. warships do in China’s excessive TTW claims.  It was power-play behavior for the U.S. and USSR in the Cold War – and not undertaken then as often as people may imagine.

In mid-late August, the Gibraltar coast watchers reported an extended period of days with heavy fog, which made it possible for ships to pass through the STROG unidentified, if not undetected.

A particularly interesting period was 18-19 August, when Russian warships entered the Mediterranean in foggy conditions.  A Russian frigate sat briefly off Morocco and then Algeria waiting for a tanker to join up before continuing eastward.

Although there was too little to make anything of that at the time, the situation, with fog and Russian warships, would have created an opportunity for Sahand and Makran to enter through the STROG in company with Russian warships, possibly executing a maneuver similar to Makran’s on 4 August when she exited the Baltic.

During that straits passage, Makran appeared to use a nearby merchant ship to mask herself almost completely from the view of Great Belt webcams.

In retrospect, that 18-19 August opportunity in the STROG may indeed have been used by the Iranian ships.  The first of the two most recent clues about Makran was registered on 26 August – a very leisurely transit from an 18 August STROG entry – when a ship that is probably Makran appeared in satellite imagery of Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake, a feature in the center of the Suez Canal’s north-south run.

The Great Bitter Lake is the spot in the Canal where ships in the separate northbound and southbound convoys can reposition themselves in relation to each other, or, at need, turn around and wait for an opportunity to retrace their transit.  As a warship, Makran would have an exemption from mandatory AIS use there (warship movements, like others, are observed and managed throughout the transit process for overall Canal safety).

Note that the Egyptian authorities would know where Makran was the entire time she was in the Canal system for transit, and naturally would also know if Sahand was present.

The interesting thing is that the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia, at a minimum, would also have known.  If Makran was indeed in the Great Bitter Lake on 26 August on a southbound transit, then a number of nations knew it, but there’s been no disclosure about it to the media in the days since.

See the Med transit/orientation map below. Click to enlarge for legibility. Google map; author annotation

It would also be a bit surprising that a ship with such notoriety wasn’t reported out via social media, if it made a transit through the Mediterranean in the typical merchant transit lanes.  Aficionados of maritime affairs, including dozens of merchant mariners who would have had the opportunity to notice Makran, are well aware of the ship’s fame and public interest.  That no one seemed to see it, or be motivated to remark on it in social media anywhere in the Med, could be a curious factor for analysis.

But note that Makran would have had a week or more to make the transit if the STROG passage was 18 or 19 August (or earlier).  With that much time between the STROG and Port Said, Egypt, the ship could have moved slowly along the coast, hugging the maritime frontiers of Algeria and Libya rather than slicing through the heavily-trafficked waters of the normal transit lanes further offshore.  Such a scheme wouldn’t be foolproof for avoiding military surveillance (i.e., by NATO assets), but it would minimize exposure to looky-loos from the general public.

Google map; author annotation

Notably, Iran’s sanctioned merchant fleet has made its living operating in exactly such a manner, in those very locations, for years.

Another point of real interest is that nothing has been seen of Sahand for weeks.  Sahand was seen leaving the Baltic in the Great Belt in early August, but was not picked up in the Great Bitter Lake at the time of the Makran sighting in satellite imagery.  We’ll come back to that in a moment.

The second recent report comes from a Twitter account purporting to be that of an Iranian naval officer’s wife.  This account looks to me more like something run by Iranian state information operators, used to inject data points that form a narrative about what the ships in the Sahand-Makran task force are doing.

The tone and language of reporting don’t resonate as those of a navy wife.  The images are press-release type photos (complete with an English-language watermark); real navy spouses sometimes post press photos to social media, but not with verbiage that also sounds like a press release or other canned language.  It’s also a bit of a red flag that the Twitter user id starts with “Navywif” – obviously aimed at English speakers, as is the apparently transliterated tweet handle “Hamsare_daryadele_arteshi.”  The user joined Twitter in July 2021, another clue that it’s just an Iranian info ops account.

Hilariously, the Navywif account made sure to corroborate the suspicious AIS reporting that put Makran near the French island, Belle Ile, around 10-11 August – by attaching a screen cap of an online AIS tracking service.

That is one wired-in navy wife.  (The exchanges with Twitter user Ricsa are priceless. Hats off to Ricsa.)

At any rate, the “navy wife” account reported on 1 September that Sahand and Makran were in the Gulf of Aden after passing through the Red Sea and Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.  (The zealous account of geographic way points looks more like info ops than like military-spouse enthusiasm expressed via social media.)

That adds up to another reasonable transit time from the detection in the Great Bitter Lake on 26 August.  It’s certainly possible.  It’s the only data point we have putting Makran south of the Canal, however, and it’s very vague.  The comment above about lack of visual observation in the Med applies to the Red Sea as well, although to a lesser extent, since there’s less general boating in the Red Sea, and nothing like the network of ferries that crisscrosses the Med.

We can take it, however, that Iran wants us to think Makran and Sahand are headed home and were in the Gulf of Aden shortly before the 1 September tweet was sent.

We still haven’t seen independent evidence of where Sahand is.  We also don’t know the disposition of the seven fast boats Makran set out with back in late April.  If Makran got to Syria and offloaded boats and/or fuel there, it’s hard to imagine we wouldn’t know that by now.  The timing isn’t impossible, if Makran actually entered the Med under fog cover earlier than about 23 August.  But as closely as Syria is watched, it’s unlikely the public would have had no indication of such events at all.

And again, what about SahandSahand, unlike Makran, requires relatively frequent refueling.  The frigate can’t just tool around in blue water indefinitely, without needing to stop and replenish fuel and stores.  If Sahand has parted company with Makran, she can’t be far from a fuel pump for very long.

Trying to answer questions about Sahand, and Makran’s deck load, would be pure speculation at this point.  If we see Makran in Bandar Abbas shortly, we may be able to speculate more intelligently.  Perhaps Sahand will be there too, as the “Navywif” account, telling Iran’s official story, informs us.

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

Regarding Makran’s deck load of fast boats, I’ve seen some speculation about their presence complicating a Suez Canal transit as an arms proliferation issue, something for which Iran is under sanctions.   But for the purpose of a Suez Canal transit, Makran – if she were even asked to account for them – could simply declare the boats part of her own deployment load-out.  I judge the current political situation to be such that Egypt would accept that declaration rather than challenge it.  So Makran wouldn’t have to get rid of the fast boats to make it through the Canal.  And as a warship, Makran would not ordinarily be challenged on the high seas.

Final notes.  U.S. intelligence would know exactly where Sahand is, and probably Makran as well.  (Sahand’s electronic signature would be a bit more distinctive than Makran’s, all things being equal.)  Assuming Makran has indeed operated in the area from EastMed to the Gulf of Aden, Israel knows where she is too.  We can assume the same about Saudi Arabia.

In the Canal and Red Sea, there would be plenty of opportunities for those national intelligence agencies to determine Makran’s current deck load.  (If the boats are gone, the big question is where they were offloaded.)

There’s little possibility, in the region they’ve been traveling in, that either Sahand or Makran has slipped from the leash of intelligence tracking by the other interested nations.  But the ships have done a good job making themselves comparatively invisible to the public (the opposite, of course, of what handsome, powerful navies do) – and the national agencies, interestingly enough, aren’t talking.

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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