Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, the Iranian navy commander, told a group of cadets Thursday their home country is currently in the process of building torpedo-launcher missiles, destroyers and submarines. State news service Fars reported the new weaponry will be used to maintain security in regional and international waters.
“Iranian officials have always stressed that the country's military and arms programs serve defensive purposes and should not be perceived as a threat to any other country,” stated Fars.
Yet the announcement follows some pretty strong language from Sayyari earlier this week, and news that Iran planned to steam two warships around the South African coast, into the Atlantic Ocean and toward the U.S.
"Iran's military fleet is approaching the United States' maritime borders, and this move has a message,” he said Tuesday, adding the deployment is in response to U.S. Naval forces’ continued presence in the Persian Gulf. "Like the arrogant powers that are present near our maritime borders, we will also have a powerful presence close to the American marine borders.” The two ships are the beginning of what will become “a flotilla into the Atlantic,” Sayyari said.
Iran’s latest moves come at a delicate time in its relations with the West, following the completion of the first round of talks over its nuclear program with delegates from a group of countries, known as the P5+1. Experts in Middle East security and weapons proliferation caution against attempts to link together these latest military actions.
“It has created a minor stir on the part of some,” says retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, which organized a call with reporters Friday morning. “But [Americans] argue vehemently for open seas. The fact that Iran is sailing on our side of the world does not seem to be particularly alarming. Indeed, it underscores the position we’ve taken all along.”
Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia and veteran international conflict mediator, says Iran’s ongoing foreign relations and military action may not be the product of “intelligent design.”
“Who knows what’s going on?” he says. “I wouldn’t assume this is a decision as a result of some calculation from uniformed leadership with a singular view.”
The inner workings of Iran’s governance remains murky. Its citizens elected President Hassan Rouhani last year, though observers believe all major decisions end with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The origin of orders for operations like the navy’s latest excursion are also unclear.
“Frankly, I find it somewhat amusing that Iran is doing this,” Galbraith added. “These aren’t a threat. I think it’s a waste of fuel to make the trip.”
The incoming ships have done little more than raise eyebrows among America’s military infrastructure. A Pentagon spokeswoman says the military has not repositioned any of its assets in response.
“At this point, we have an announcement not a deployment,” says Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith. “Freedom of the seas applies to all maritime nations, all navies, everywhere – so long as they understand the responsibilities which come with that freedom. So, if they choose to send their ships to the Atlantic, I'm sure they won't be surprised to find many, many others already there.”
A 2009 report from the Office of Naval Research says the Iranian fleet, comprised of mostly 30-year-old vessels of British, French and U.S. design, are in desperate need of repair.
“Approximately half of the [Iranian Navy’s] missile-armed surface combatants are in very poor material condition, limiting their readiness and their operational endurance,” the report said.