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The Persians Are Coming! Instead of Paul Revere, We Have Cable News!

September 29, 2011

You’re probably aware that Iran recently announced that it would be sending naval warships to patrol the Western Atlantic. As a fairly close observer of the Iranian navy, I initially followed this story with great amusement because, well, that’s a monumental undertaking for the Iranian navy to support. However, my amusement was quickly replaced by incredulity and anger as US news outlets picked up the story and inserted outrageous headlines on top of a story that was a non-story. Let me skip to the ending: Iran is not sending warships to the Florida coast.

The Century Foundation’s InsideIRAN project and I got in touch via Twitter over the story and I ended up doing an interview with them on their website. Let me add something though that I don’t think I expressed clearly enough in the interview. The likelihood that Iran sends a warship or two or three to the Western Atlantic to run continuous maritime patrols is almost zero. They simply can’t sustain that kind of operation. Instead, what they *might* do is make a port call to somewhere like Venezuela. Even this, as I note in the interview, would stretch the limits of their capabilities and I’m not sure they could pull it off. But, it is possible and certainly more likely than the first scenario.

Here’s an excerpt:

Q: Iranian military officials have declared their intention to send Iranian warships near United States territorial waters. What does the Iranian military hope to accomplish with this declaration?

A: Iran’s recent declarations of intent to send warships to U.S. coastal waters are a reflection of Iran’s unhappiness with the presence of the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf. Iran views the U.S. naval presence in its coastal waters as illegitimate and unnecessary. Moreover, Iran views U.S. presence with suspicion as these assets could be used to launch an attack on Iran in the event the nuclear issue reaches a point where the U.S. would strike Iran. Iran’s threats to reciprocate in kind—deploying warships close to U.S. territory—is a way for Iran to highlight the issue. Iran, perhaps more than any other country, is a master at exploiting tactical actions into strategic communications victories. Recent pronouncements are a perfect example of this skill. The more worrying possibility is that Iran simply makes the long voyage to a place like Venezuela, not to use as a base for maritime patrols near the U.S., but as a simple port call to deliver certain high-end military technology or components.

Q: What logistical challenges would an Iranian fleet have to overcome to reach the United States’ maritime border in the Atlantic?

A: First, it’s important to define what we mean by Iranian fleet. The most likely arrangement would be one (1) Iranian Alvand class light frigate (some sources classify it as a corvette); and one (1) Kharg class replenishment ship. Iran has sent similar fleets to Eritrea and Sudan over the last several years. The most notable recent example was Iran’s visit to Syria that transited the Suez Canal in February raising the ire of Israel.

The logistical impediments Iran would have to overcome in order to complete a deployment to the Western Atlantic are enormous, possibly insurmountable. Iran has no permanent or temporary bases in the Western Hemisphere at which it can make port in order to refuel and resupply. Thus, it would have to rely on friends and allies to receive its ships and resupply them with fuel and other supplies.

Q: How could an Iranian fleet resupply or refuel/ overcome these challenges? Where could this refueling be accomplished?

A: As I said above, given that Iran has no military bases in the Western Hemisphere, Iran would need a base in South or Central America from where it could send patrols to the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic. The most likely candidate is Venezuela. The shortest route between Iran and Venezuela, via the Suez Canal, is roughly 8,700 nautical miles (nm). If Iran decided to make a port call in Syria, the trip could be reduced to roughly 6,000 nm. That distance would still stretch the limits of Iran’s capabilities. The Kharg class replenishment ship can make that journey alone, but carrying fuel for itself and the frigate could be a challenge. The Alvand class frigate only has a range of 3,650 nm. So, Iran would have to be able to execute what’s known as underway replenishment, a challenging and dangerous undertaking even for the U.S. Navy who performs it regularly. Iran is said to be developing this capability, but it’s still unknown.

You can read the rest here.

See, I can do other things besides strategery!

  1. October 6, 2011 11:58 pm

    Interesting article. I would like to point out that Iran has conducted RAS operations before. I found a photo of it, based on the weapons on the frigate it would say it was taken in the late 80’s to early 90’s before Iran got the C-802 but after their war with Iraq since the Sea Killer missiles are mostly missing.

    I’m unsure if they have continued to practice this.

    I assume they are going to Venezuela as well, perhaps to pick up some arms; like an F-16 or Su-30MK fighter or submarine parts for study. The Venezuelan navy operates a replenishment tanker called the ARBV Ciudad Bolivar T-81, she can carry 4,400 tons of fuel. I wonder if she might rendezvous with an Iranian task force and top off their tanks for the rest of the trip.

    • wjrue permalink
      October 7, 2011 8:13 am

      TLAM Strike,

      Thanks for the photo. That’s great information. I was unable to find anything that definitively said they were proficient at RAS. Jane’s even notes that it’s unknown, but I’ll definitely save this image and information for later use. Also, a good point about the Venezuelan tanker, but of course the problem there is going to be doing RAS with a foreign navy. I’m definitely no expert at RAS or surface warfare (I’m learning!), but that would be tough.
      Thanks for the gouge!



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