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Opinion: Iran’s Atlantic Adventure Little Threat to U.S.

Iranian Frigate Sabalan (F-73)

Iranian Frigate Sabalan (F-73)

The Iranian “fleet” reportedly heading for America’s “maritime borders” consists of two ships, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) frigate Sabalan and the supply ship Kharg. An examination of some of the media hype and a few of the facts will reveal that this voyage is low in threat and rich in symbolism.

From the political right—former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton was quoted in USA Today as saying “It shows they [Iran] could put a weapon on a boat or freighter, and if Iran has ballistic missiles it could put it anywhere on the U.S. coast.”

He added, “Down the road it could be a threat.” Clearly Bolton’s words are intended to strike fear into the hearts of those that are convinced that Iran on its media-hyped maiden Atlantic voyage is presenting a legitimate blue-water threat to the United States and add to the arguments for a more muscular response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

One must guess that Bolton’s “down the road” comment means the day when Iran develops an ability to launch ballistic missiles from a 54-year-old frigate, or a 37-year-old oiler. Yes, that would in fact be “down the road,” so far in fact that a vantage point in space would be needed to see it. Bolton’s comments unfortunately offer little in the way of substantive facts or analysis on what this voyage is really meant to accomplish for Iran. Or, more important, what, if anything, it should mean to the United States.

From the political left: There is an apparent lack of interest in the story, or perhaps another side of the story? White House press secretary Jay Carney said on 10 February

“There was an Iranian announcement that they are moving ships close to the United States, and we have no evidence that Iran is, in fact, sending ships close to the U.S. border.” Carney seemed unsure about the news the two ships were reportedly leaving port in South Africa and heading into the Atlantic this week. He responded to one reporter, “Is Fox [News] reporting that they’re moving warships closer to the U.S.? . . . I don’t have a specific answer to that report. I’m sure we can get it to you.”

Considering that Carney has access to daily White House briefings from the president’s national security team, his comments may indicate that this is so insignificant that it hasn’t bubbled up to category of “important news,” or it may indicate that what the Iranian Fars news agency has been reporting is bluster for the consumption of the home audience.

From the middle: Where the empirical facts can be examined without the political noise, here’s what we know. If the IRIN is really venturing into the Atlantic, this would represent just the latest in a string of voyages that the IRIN has conducted.

In March of last year the same two vessels of the “fleet” sent into the Atlantic visited the China’s South China Sea port of Zhangjigang. In 2012, two different IRIN warships traveled to the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal. Thus, the Atlantic voyage is the final piece in Iran’s demonstration of naval legitimacy and its increased engagement with its allies. A good guess is that the two IRIN vessels reportedly in South Atlantic will enter into our backyard pond, the Caribbean Sea, and make a port call in Venezuela before returning to their home waters.

One of the more interesting aspects of this story, which has not been reported, is the strategic communication intended by the sending of the IRIN frigate Sabalan. As many in the U.S. Navy will recall, this is the ship that was left burning and dead in the water on the afternoon of 18 April 1988 following the punitive attacks on Iranian assets in the Persian Gulf known as Operation Praying Mantis. The Sabalan was towed to port and rebuilt. The sending of the Sabalan, when other, newer vessels are available, is perhaps intended as strategic message to the United States. Objectively, one has to admire the fact that this 54-year-old vessel, once burned and broken, now refurbished is making its second long-distance voyage in a year. That says something about Iran’s indigenous shipbuilding and defense industries. That is at least one valid point that U.S. Navy and American defense analysts should take away from this Iranian exercise in blue-water operations.

Finally, this voyage is another milestone achievement for Iran. While it may not seem like much to the American audience, it is big news for the home viewing audience and serves as a source of national pride. The IRIN’s Atlantic voyage fits a recent pattern of Iran’s greater presence on the international stage. Some sources have suggested that this all is timed to coincide with the next round of the P5+1 talks scheduled for next week. The conclusion that Iran is rattling the saber before negotiations is reinforced by Iran’s testing of two missiles in its airspace earlier this week. In the final analysis it stands that Iran’s strategic communications are checked and matched every day by the formidable U.S. military presence in their home waters in Persian Gulf region. With that fact in mind, what type of reception should they expect if they choose to patrol America’s maritime borders?

[i] http://pjmedia.com/tatler/2014/02/10/carney-on-report-of-iran-moving-warships-toward-u-s-is-that-just-a-fox-thing/

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Categories: Foreign Forces, Surface Forces

About Cmdr. Daniel Dolan

Cmdr. Daniel Dolan is assigned to the Naval War College where he teaches Strategy and War and serves as the Deputy Manager of the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program. He is an EP-3/special mission P-3 Naval Flight Officer and frequent contributor to Proceedings. The views expressed are his alone and do not represent an official position of the Naval War College, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

  • In view of our rather relaxed view of the need for coastal defense, it might be worth looking at how quickly we could generate a strike on these vessels, if the US suddenly found itself in a conflict with Iran.

    When 9-11 happened we had only unarmed F-16 to launch against the flight that was ultimately crashed by the passenger uprising. We now have a few fighters on alert armed to take on air targets. I frankly doubt we have any standing by for a surface strike.

    If we suddenly needed to make a surface strike, how long would it take for us to get get the tasking approved, the aircraft armed, the crews briefed, the transit from our now few widely dispersed bases, the targeting (possibly getting the Air Force to recognize the target and not hit innocent vessels in the area) ?

  • tom roscoe

    Iran comes with it’s ships to the east coast of USA

    One cargo ship, one small gun boat, three submarines.

    The cargo ship is 640 feet long, a SCUD is 40 feet long, a SLCM is the size of a small jet or less. Look up Exocet size.
    The gun boat has a large cannon and cruise missiles or with torpedoes.
    The submarines have torpedoes.

    Has the cargo ship been monitored since it left England ship yards where it was made till the present?
    Has the cargo ship been monitored since it left China shipyard for refitting?
    Does the USN know what alterations were made during the shipyard visit by China?
    Has China told the USN of what alterations were made to the cargo ship?
    Does the USN have photos of the ship before and after the China shipyard visit?
    Does the USN have radar images of the ship before and after the China shipyard visit?
    Does the USN know where the three former soviet submarines are at present?
    Are there spy’s on board the aircraft carrier and cruisers that are shadowing the Iranian ships?
    Can these spy’s sabotage the ships at the correct time that the cargo ship readies a SCUD to launch toward USA?

    Could there be an effort by the powers that be to allow a war with Iran so that the American
    economy would have a war to get it working again?

    1. Cruise along the east coast with no incident.

    2. Act provocative -bellicose but no incident (steam toward USA but not go over the 12 mile limit of teritoial waters)

    3. Engine trouble for cargo ship and towed to USA port for repairs. As good will gesture the USA lets them in to USA for
    repairs. Leaves USA without incident, yet is a big Media show for the powers that be.

    4. At the correct distance from the USA the cargo ship slows down and sets up a SCUD or two for rapid fire. Launches 4 high
    speed torpedoes, from hidden tubes at the USN ship shadowing the Iranian fleet.(it received this weapon from the
    China visit.)it also launches surface launched cruise missiles toward the USN cruiser. The gun boat attacks the
    USN crusier at close range by surprise. Cruiser out of action. Terrorist cell groups destroy anything they can.
    The first SCUD goes high altitude and detonates a EMP the other goes to a USA city. The cargo ship launches a series
    of remaining Scuds and surface launched cruise missiles at cities or ships. It takes USA time to address the supprise
    attack and destroy all targets. War and marshal law is declared.

    5. Trojan horse event. Cargo ship engine trouble faked. Gets towed to USA port for repairs. Inside the at night cargo ship
    raises SCUDs and launches two. One as a high altitude EMP the other onto a city. Also launches SLCM at random
    targets in the port. Terrorist cell groups destroy anything they can.
    The subs stayed at sea taking on other soft targets. The gun boat does the same. Takes USA time to address the
    surprise attack and destroy all targets. War and marshal law is declared.

    6. The three submarines attack the USN cruiser with high speed torpedoes.The cargo ship launches high speed torpedoes
    and launches surface launched cruise missiles toward the USN crusier. With the cruiser out of action the cargo ship
    launches SCUDs and surface launched cruise missiles toward the USA. Terrorist cell groups destroy anything they can.
    War and marshal law is declared.
    7. Nothing happens and the Iranian ships visit ports in Caribbean and south America, most get the clap and go home.

    • Dave

      Oh, man. You need help

  • Bruce Parker

    There will undoubtedly be a US NAVY Arleigh Burke class DDG or a Nuclear attack sub shadowing this Dog and Pony show once they approach the Windward Islands in the Carribean. While the Iranians watch the “Progress” of their fleet on national TV, our Sailors are out there, watching!

    • Will there be? And when they split up? Not really a threat, but would be nice to remind them how vulnerable they are.