Surprise Surprise, Iran Bluffed—Its Navy Never Went Near the U.S. Coast
Tehran’s sad little flotilla stayed close to home, fought pirates, instead
In January, a senior admiral of the Iranian navy announced he was sending two warships “to the United States’ maritime borders” in order to send “a message” to Washington.
Adm. Afshin Rezayee Haddad was bluffing. Tehran did indeed dispatch a task force of two rather aged warships—only one of them meaningfully armed.
But the Iranian navy’s 29th Flotilla never went anywhere near the U.S. It barely even left Iran’s territorial waters. And instead of sending a message to Washington, the flotilla merely skirmished with African pirates before quietly returning home.
The 29th Flotilla’s rather pathetic deployment continues a long, less-than-proud tradition of Iranian naval posturing. Tehran has long claimed it would sail warships into American waters.
But so far, Iran’s tiny, outdated fleet hasn’t even managed to reach the Atlantic—to say nothing of crossing that vast, stormy ocean to threaten U.S. shores.
Haddad issued his threat in January, insisting that his ships would enter the Atlantic via South African waters and subsequently “approach” the U.S. border. The deployment was “Iran’s response to Washington’s beefed-up naval presence in the Persian Gulf,” Haddad said.
29th Flotilla was really just two ships: the 1,500-ton corvette Sabalan and the 33,000-ton supply ship Kharg. The 45-year-old Sabalan is notorious for having been bombed and nearly sunk by U.S. warplanes during naval skirmishes in 1988.
The 1980s-vintage Kharg can support up to three helicopters, which is why Iranian media insists on describing the lightly-armed ship as a “helicopter carrier.”
There was ample reason to doubt Haddad’s implication that Sabalan and Kharg could even reach American shores. Sabalan normally carries enough fuel to travel just 4,500 miles under ideal conditions. Iran’s shortest possible route across the Atlantic—from West Africa to Venezuela—is around 3,000 miles.
With no ability to refuel while underway from Kharg or any other vessel, Sabalan would be in big trouble if she ran into bad weather or suffered a mechanical failure. It’s not for no reason that the U.S. Navy, by far the world’s most powerful global maritime force, places such great emphasis on its ability to transfer fuel between ships while they’re on the move.
Sure enough, the 29th Flotilla didn’t even attempt the crossing—and doesn’t appear to have even called in South Africa. The flotilla got underway in Iran in mid-January. On Feb. 11, it was still in the Gulf of Aden near Iran. On Feb. 22, the two-ship task force intercepted pirates attempting to hijack a cargo ship in the Red Sea.
And on March 11, the flotilla berthed in Oman on its way home, having traveled a total of 4,900 miles during the deployment, according to Iranian media. Five thousand miles will get you out of the Persian Gulf, around the Arabian Peninsula, into the Red Sea and back, but it won’t take you around Africa and across the Atlantic.
It was a leisurely jaunt around the neighborhood, really—and never far from home … or at least a friendly port.
Haddad’s January pronouncement was a bold one, but never realistic. In failing to reach U.S. shores, Tehran risked embarrassment. In seriously attempting to do so, it would also have risked losing two warships and hundreds of sailors.
In mid-February, an Iranian reporter asked Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari about the plan to cross the Atlantic. “That will be done,” Sayyari replied vaguely, effectively maintaining Tehran’s threat to post warships on the American coast. Some day. Somehow.
The threat is not a new one. The Iranian navy has been vowing to sail across the Atlantic since at least 2011. Likewise, Tehran announced it would deploy warships to the Pacific and the Mediterranean, but has managed only brief stopovers at Chinese and Syrian ports on the fringes of those seas.
The cold reality is that Iran’s navy is a regional force—and not even a very powerful one. Tehran’s corvettes, midget submarines and gun-armed speedboats could cause the U.S. Navy and its allies no end of trouble in the event of open warfare in the Persian Gulf.
But the same forces lose effectiveness very quickly even a few hundred miles from Iran’s ports. To say nothing of traveling thousands of miles to project power in America.