Two Iranian ships—a destroyer and a supply vessel—have entered the Atlantic Ocean to great fanfare in Tehran and concern in Washington. “This powerful presence indicates the naval capability and authority of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Iranian Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari declared. While the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community remain concerned about the deployment’s purpose—are they carrying oil or weaponry and are they heading to Cuba or Venezuela—the greatest worries are probably onboard the “Makran” and the “Sahand.”
Simply put, while the Islamic Republic attaches great prestige to its navy, its recent track record is poor. First, the prestige: In 2007, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) reorganized to focus more on domestic security than projection of power. Then-IRGC chief Mohammad Ali Jafari put one IRGC unit in each province in order to suppress internal dissent and limited most overseas operations to the Qods Force, the elite unit whose chief purpose Iranian leaders and the IRGC’s own documents show is to “export revolution” and “support resistance.”
Shortly after, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei traveled to Bandar Abbas, Iran’s major Persian Gulf port, and told the Iranian Navy that they were the chief means or the Islamic Republic to project power. “Both the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy and the Revolutionary Guards’ Navy are the symbols of the might of the Iranian nation,” he declared to assembled sailors. The Iranian government invested in bases in both Jask and Chahbahar, both outside the Strait of Hormuz, and began a series of increasingly ambitious deployments, first to Sudan and Sri Lanka and then to China—the first Persian naval presence there in more than 1200 years—and through the Suez Canal for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
As the Iranian Navy grew more ambitious, however, it grew accident-prone. Five years ago, Iranian authorities announced with fanfare that they would send a flotilla into the Atlantic Ocean; they did not make it. The Iranian ships experienced mechanical trouble, made an emergency port call in Durban but were unable to repair their systems. Iranian sailors ran out of food and ended up on the streets of the South African port begging for food and money. It would take months before they could return their ships back to Iran. A more deadly accident struck Iranian sailors in the Pacific. In January 2018, an Iranian tanker burned and sank off the coast of China with all lives lost.
It may be tempting for conspiracy theorists to accuse the United States or Israel of responsibility for Iranian maritime accidents, but the simple fact is that Iranian incompetence and poor equipment is usually to blame. Consider the Damavand, a destroyer President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Navy launched in the Caspian Sea in 2014 to great fanfare. Less than four years later, the ship was gone: While docking at Bandar Anzali, it hit a breakwater and sank. At first Iranian leaders denied the incident, but Iranian bloggers then uploaded footage they acknowledged of the accident. Even if the weather was stormy, such an accident exposes systematic incompetence in training and operations.
Incompetence also explains the Iranian Navy’s most deadly accident when, just a year ago, a friendly fire incident destroyed the Konarak and snuffed out the lives of 19 Iranians onboard.
The Atlantic Ocean can be rough, especially in the summer months when tropical storms brew. Even the U.S. Navy, with the world’s most advanced aircraft carriers and escort vessels, employs top-notch meteorologists to help the ships avoid the worst storms before or as they storm. I have been on U.S. Navy ships in the Atlantic that have taken days-long detours to avoid dangerous sea conditions. The Iranian navy has no such capability. Nor do they have much recourse should they suffer engineering casualties such as the evaporators necessary to provide fresh water.
Perhaps the Iranian ships will get lucky and make it across the Atlantic to offload their cargo in Cuba or Venezuela. They will not likely return with empty holds; they have searched for and mined uranium in Venezuela for years, now, and may like to transport their share or seek payment in drugs that they often utilize to pay proxies or fund operations globally. While in port, their ships will receive little effective maintenance; neither Venezuela nor Cuba have such capabilities, (although perhaps Russia will send some experts to meet the ships). The Iranian sailors then must then follow the same southern route home as, treaty or not, Egyptian pilots have since the fall of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi found excuses not to allow Iranian ships through Suez.
If I were a Las Vegas bookie, I would only give even odds they would make it, and even that supposes no actions against the ships by hostile intelligence services or militaries.