Iranian navy personnel stand aboard two Iranian warships docked in the Sudanese Red Sea city of Port Sudan on Dec.8, 2012.

Don't Worry About Iran's Navy ... Yet

The threat from Iran's navy is negligible for now.

Iranian navy personnel stand aboard two Iranian warships docked in the Sudanese Red Sea city of Port Sudan on Dec.8, 2012.

Iran is currently in the process of building torpedo-launcher missiles, destroyers and submarines, according to Iranian navy commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari.

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The Iranian Navy, it seems, is coming. As Iran begins to enjoy the fruits of sanctions relief as a result of the interim deal hammered out with the so-called P5+1 powers last fall, it has begun to make good on its long-standing promise, often dismissed as geopolitical bluster, to deploy naval vessels to the Atlantic. On Tuesday, January 21, two warships of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy were formally dispatched to the Atlantic — a first for the Islamic Republic. The ships, the helicopter carrier Kharg and the destroyer Sabalan, will steam some 23,000 miles during the three month deployment with around 400 personnel, including 30 naval cadets.

Some three weeks later, on February 8, the commander of Iran's Northern Navy Fleet, Admiral Afshin Rezayee Haddad, confirmed the mission when he claimed the vessels had already begun the journey to the Atlantic via waters near South Africa. "Iran's military fleet is approaching the United States' maritime borders, and this move has a message," Haddad said. 

The deployment is part of a larger vision on the part of the Islamic Republic. According to Commander Habibollah Sayyari, Iran wants to influence the strategic maritime triangle that extends from Bab al-Mandab at the southern tip of Yemen to the Strait of Hormuz and out into the Indian Ocean as far as the Malacca Strait.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

The history is instructive. In 2007, Tehran launched sweeping reorganizations of both the its navy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy in response to increased international pressure over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. At that time, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei publicly linked Iran’s regional prominence to naval expansion and development, perhaps hedging that nuclear development may stall under external pressure.

Despite Western sanctions, the Iranian regime’s investments in naval development have been relatively substantial, as has rhetoric about Iran’s naval ambitions. In separate speeches in 2012, Sayyari pronounced Iran’s right and desire to deploy naval assets to the East Coast of the United States and to the international waters surrounding the South Pole. Amid the domestic tug-of-war over fleet modernization and military priorities, many dismissed Sayyari’s stance as simply political maneuvering designed to ensure the navy's standing in Iran’s fractious internal politics. But this voyage suggests that there is something more at play. “Like the arrogant powers that are present near our maritime borders, we will also have a powerful presence close to the American borders,” Sayyari has claimed.

Even so, the patrol should not be cause for alarm. The Kharg is a helicopter carrier only because that is the latest designation the Iranian navy has bestowed upon it. It has also been referred in the Iranian press as a “cruiser” and an “aviation cruiser.” But it is, in reality, a 680 foot refitted replenishment tanker launched in 1977 for aircraft transport. The other ship, the Sabalan, is a re-fitted British Alvand-class frigate commissioned in 1972. This vessel’s illustrious history includes being crippled by a U.S. laser-guided bomb in April of 1988 and spending two years in dry-dock as a result. So, while Iran is clearly demonstrating the desire to exercise influence far from its own borders, it is doing so with vessels that most developed navies would have retired more than a decade ago — a testament to how significantly Western sanctions succeeded in impairing Iran’s military potential, at least until now.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Nonetheless, U.S. policymakers shouldn’t completely discount the threat. Iran’s deployment demonstrates a growing willingness on the part of the Islamic Republic to venture beyond its traditional waters. And now, with international sanctions slackening as a result of nuclear negotiations with the West, Iran has more breathing room to strengthen its naval capabilities further. One day soon, therefore, the threat posed by them might not be quite so negligible.