Tehran announced on February 8 that it had dispatched a frigate and a supply ship to the North Atlantic Ocean, where they will approach U.S. maritime borders. This is not the first time the Iranians have announced their intent to deploy naval vessels close to the United States. Iran made two such declarations in 2011 but never followed through.
However, following the most recent announcement, Iranian Adm. Afshin Rezayee Haddad said the Iranian fleet is actually underway, already approaching the South Atlantic Ocean through waters off the coast of South Africa. The Iranian decision to deploy naval vessels to the North Atlantic is largely symbolic; it does not pose any real military risk. Iran will use the deployment to show the flag in a non-threatening manner, looking to appease its hard-liners who are dubious about the U.S.-Iran nuclear talks.
Given the ongoing nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P-5+1 group — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — the Iranian navy’s operation takes place in a politically sensitive context. Decades of animosity between the United States and Iran has created diehard camps in each country that must be managed carefully because they can seriously disrupt any potential agreement. The political rhetoric surrounding the talks can seem polarized at times, with any breakthrough in negotiations matched by stern warnings and guarantees that neither side is giving up too much.
For the United States, this rhetoric translates as continued assurances of the effectiveness of current sanctions. In return, Iran constantly reiterates the parts of its nuclear program that it has refused to give up. Both sides also like to remind each other that military options are always on the table. The possible excursion into the Atlantic by the Iranian navy — and the public announcement about the deployment — fits this ongoing dynamic between Tehran and Washington.
It is unclear whether the Iranians will actually sail to the North Atlantic, but it is important to note that such a deployment is certainly within their capabilities. The Iranian navy is dominated by small patrol and fast attack missile boats that are ideally suited for operations in and along the Persian Gulf. These vessels are unable to deploy far from Iran, but Tehran also has around four other vessels similar to the currently deployed frigate that enable it to conduct occasional long-distance missions such as the announced Atlantic deployment.
An Armada of Two
These long-distance blue-water (non-coastal) capabilities are limited; the warships themselves must be accompanied by a specialist ship, especially when venturing as far as the western Atlantic. The other craft the Iranians use to project naval force is a replenishment vessel that provides fuel, food, fresh water and ammunition for extended deployments. This vessel is the Kharg, an aging Ol-class design built in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s and delivered to the Iranians in 1984. Without this vessel, the small number of Iranian frigates would be unable to embark on extended deployments without consistent and frequent port visits along the way, a method that the Iranians cannot rely on for a mission to the Atlantic.
Media reports of Iranian vessels sailing across the world’s oceans instill national pride inside Iran. Tehran has repeatedly made exaggerated boasts about its military prowess, both as a deterrent to foreign enemies as well as for domestic propaganda purposes. Deploying military vessels to the Atlantic — especially in proximity to the United States’ territorial waters — is a good way to demonstrate the Iranian navy’s reach. This is particularly important at a time when many Iranian hard-liners continue to seethe at what they view as a destabilizing U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf. As Haddad said, the primary motivation behind such a deployment “has a message”: Iran is looking to give the United States a taste of its own medicine.
However, the potential deployment of an Iranian flotilla to the North Atlantic will be far more effective at galvanizing national attention than worrying the United States. The reality is indisputable: Tehran’s naval deployment poses no threat to the United States. If anything, the Iranian vessels, sailing far from Iran’s territorial waters, are at their most vulnerable in the open waters of the Atlantic. The Iranian navy cannot hope to compete in blue-water operations against the U.S. Navy. Even the best of Iran’s naval platforms have limited capabilities relative to almost any comparable U.S. Navy platform, in terms of weapons range, speed, countermeasures and detection range. The real threat posed by the Iranian navy continues to rest on their ability to disrupt maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf, especially the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
The proclaimed Iranian mission to the Atlantic is another vivid reminder of a wider truth about the Iranian armed forces; that despite very old and aging equipment, the Iranians continue to maintain what they have and take their training very seriously. In any extended deployment using aging vessels, there is a tangible risk of a breakdown, as was seen with the four-decade-old Moroccan landing ship that required U.S. assistance after it took on water near Puerto Rico in 2005. As long as the Iranian navy avoids breaking down entirely or being forced into port for repairs, a deployment to the Atlantic will serve its symbolic purpose of showing strength and capability to the United States, while placating the more entrenched domestic factions at home.