For the 2nd year in a row, Iran is sailing its biggest warship around the world to show off its growing navy

The Iranian-made warship Makran takes part in an exercise in the Gulf of Oman, in this picture obtained on January 14, 2021
Iranian warship Makran in the Gulf of Oman.Iranian Army/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
  • Iranian warships left Iran in September on what one official said was a journey around the world.

  • The ships have sailed across the Pacific and are reportedly on the Atlantic coast of South America.

  • The voyage is likely meant to show off Tehran's growing naval force to friends and foes alike.

Iran's biggest warship and one of its frigates are sailing across the Pacific in a first-of-its-kind journey likely meant to show off Tehran's growing naval force to friends and foes alike.

The two ships appear to be the frigate IRIS Dena and the forward base ship IRINS Makran. They were spotted by the French and Australian navies in early January as they sailed through the South Pacific. The ships have been granted permission to dock in Rio de Janeiro, reportedly arriving on January 23.

Rear Adm. Shahram Irani, Iran's navy chief, said in December that the two warships, which departed Iran in September, will circumnavigate the globe to "show the authority of the dear people of Iran to the whole world."

Irani added that "presence in the seas means power and authority."

Although it's not a combat ship, IRINS Makran is Iran's biggest warship and its only forward base ship. Converted from an oil tanker in 2020, its deck can hold six to seven helicopters, according to Iran's former navy chief.

Video footage indicates that Makran can accommodate vertical-takeoff-and-landing drones. Its deck also has space for ballistic-missile launchers and rocket artillery.

Besides acting as a support ship, Iran claims that the Makran can be used for electronic warfare and special-operations missions. This is Makran's second important deployment.

Visiting far off lands

Makran iran ship americas
Iranian navy Makran near the Strait of Hormuz in May 2021.Maxar via Reuters

In 2021, in another historic deployment, Makran and the frigate IRIS Sahand sailed around the Horn of Africa and through the Atlantic Ocean to St. Petersburg, where they took part in Russia's Navy Day celebrations.

Their voyage through the Atlantic attracted intense scrutiny in the US, which suspected that they were headed to Venezuela or Cuba in an effort to flout Washington's attempts to isolate them.

That the warships reached the Atlantic without requesting access to foreign ports showed Iran's "powerful presence in open seas in accordance with international maritime rules," Iranian Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari wrote at the time, calling Iran's presence on the open seas a "message of peace and friendship" to the world.

Irani, the country's navy chief, also said this month that Iran was "planning to be present" in the Panama Canal — a possible reference to Dena and Makran's deployment, though Irani didn't say which ships will deploy there or when they'd reach the canal.

Those comments are purely political, Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Insititute, told Insider.

Iranian Navy ship Sahand in Persian Gulf
Iranian Navy Mowj-class frigate Sahand in the Persian Gulf in April 2019.Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

"So much of this is part of the vendetta vs. the US," Vatanka said.

US Navy and Coast Guard vessels have conducted arms control and maritime security operations in the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf for years. They have repeatedly seized Iranian arms shipments bound for Yemen and have often had tense encounters with Iranian warships.

Tehran is saying "if your navy comes off my coast, you'll see our navy off of yours," Vatanka said, adding that "these deployments don't really make sense for Iran at the moment due to its economic difficulties."

Sending the two warships abroad is partly meant to distract from Iran's internal troubles, specifically its widespread women's rights protests. "Given the Iranian protests, Iranian leadership wants to show that it's not on its knees," Vatanka added.

A US State Department spokesman told The Washington Free Beacon that it is monitoring "Iran's attempts to have a military presence" in the hemisphere.

A wave to Moscow

Russian Vladimir Putin and Iran Ebrahim Raisi
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Samarkand in September 2022.ALEXANDR DEMYANCHUK/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

The naval deployments could also be a signal from Tehran to its partners.

Iran has sought help rebuilding its navy, which had ship orders canceled after the 1979 revolution and then suffered losses during the Iran-Iraq War and in a clash with the US in the 1980s.

Tehran received aid from Russia, which provided some warships, and other countries, and more recently sought support from China, though Beijing appears to have been wary of sharing naval technology.

Following Russia's attack on Ukraine in February 2022, Iran has begun supplying Russia with weapons, including drones and missiles, perhaps seeing an opportunity to expand and deepen the relationship.

Tehran wants to show Moscow that it is an equal partner and not just an export market, Vatanka told Insider.

Iran has also started an indigenous shipbuilding program to grow its navy, which is designed to defend the Persian Gulf. That force hasn't undergone modernization in decades, but in recent years it has developed and fielded dozens of vessels, including four Mowj-class frigates, the Iranian navy's most advanced warships.

Iran Mowj-class frigate Jamaran
Iran's first Mowj-class frigate, Jamaran, in the Persian Gulf in February 2009.EBRAHIM NOUROZI/AFP via Getty Images

Tehran's investment in its navy indicates the force is likely to continue growing and making high-profile voyages, but Iran's limited resources and its rivalries in the Middle East mean that its focus is likely to remain on the Persian Gulf region.

Although what Iran does today should be taken with a grain of salt, "there is the question of what they'll be able to do in the next 10, 20 years," Vatanka told Insider.

Forecasting the future is difficult, Vatanka said, but "a fully-fledged partnership" between Tehran and Moscow could raise the quality of Iranian naval production and increase its naval capabilities through technology transfer and joint training.

"Look at Iran's missile and drone programs. 10-15 years ago they weren't as developed. It could be the same with its navy," Vatanka added. "Yet the focus of Iran will continue to be the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the Indian ocean. Iran will want to pretend it is a global force, but that is far from the reality."

Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master's degree in security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. You can contact him on LinkedIn.

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