Two Iranian warships are approaching the English Channel, according to satellite photographs reviewed by USNI News. The ships are believed to be heading to the Baltic Sea to represent Iran in a naval parade on July 25 to commemorate the 325th anniversary of the Russian Navy off St. Petersburg.
The pair, the IRINS frigate Sahand and former oil tanker turned IRINS warship Makran sailed up the west coast of Africa and passed Spain and France before approaching the south coast of England. Leaving Iran in April with weapons and possibly refined fuel, the duo were believed to be heading first to Venezuela before lingering off the coast of Senegal before heading to the North Atlantic.
When ships cross the Channel, they are likely to be closely watched by NATO warships. Until clear photos emerge, the question remains whether the converted tanker still has the fast boats it carried on board or is sailing low in the water, indicating it could be loaded with gas. or refined petroleum.
The ship slowly preceded a light frigate (Iran calls it a “destroyer”) as escort. Based on the sporadic AIS (Automatic Identification System) transmissions tracked through MarineTraffic.com, we can see that they lingered for about a week off Dakar, Senegal. AIS transmissions have been intermittent and ambiguous at times, but open source intelligence experts have been able to keep reasonable track of their actual path.
When Makran was first sighted in November 2020, the vessel was considered an advanced base vessel by Western observers. This was equivalent to its role with that of ships in the US Navy’s Expeditionary Maritime Base (ESB), such as the USS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams (ESB-4). ESBs serve as a floating base for operations and can transport or support a range of small boats and airplanes. Makran exercised with the launch of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and mini-submarines for special forces, involving an amphibious warfare role. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Navy has two forward bases, although both are much smaller than Makran.
Makran is a unique warship that entered service with the Iranian Navy in January. While the exact definitions vary from navy to navy, there is a common notion of what destroyers, frigates, and cruisers are. And the same is true for naval auxiliaries such as tankers, submarine tenders and hospital ships. The status of the converted tanker is still unclear. There is a natural suspicion that Iran may use Makran as a blockade runner, delivering fuel to sanctioned allies under the legal protection of a warship. While naval auxiliaries can support humanitarian efforts, the use of an auxiliary to evade sanctions is a new test of international standards. Although there have been occasions when surface fighters and submarines have been used to transport high value cargoes, Makran increases its ability to survive by using international law.
The label of the advanced base ship isn’t entirely wrong. Makran is equipped with a large helipad (but no hangars) and can deploy small boats or mini-submarines from its deck. But when he left Iran in May, he appeared to be on a transport mission, delivering seven missile boats to a foreign country. And it was later determined by USNI News that she was likely fully loaded with oil or fuel. When he did not head to Venezuela, the next likely destination was considered Syria.
Iran exported fuel to Venezuela and Iran, despite international sanctions. However, some shipments have been banned by the United States. In August 2020, four shipments were seized. Previously in July 2019, the oil tanker Grace 1 carrying Iranian oil destined for Syria was impounded in Gibraltar.
All of the tankers involved were merchant ships. But Makran is a naval auxiliary who provides him with some protection under international law. As an auxiliary to the navy, it is classified as a warship and therefore enjoys sovereign immunity. Under the law of the sea, it is immune from the jurisdiction of any other state. Thus, neither he nor his cargo could be seized in the same way as civilian ships.
There is a trade-off, however. As an auxiliary of the navy, in time of war, he is not entitled to belligerent rights during armed conflicts. This means that he cannot legally carry out attacks. Long-range anti-ship missiles like those transported to another Iranian forward base, Shahid Roudaki, could not be credibly mounted. But hit has none of these, only helicopters, short-range cannons (six automatic cannon positions added) and machine guns are installed. And like American naval auxiliaries, it can carry out the full range of naval support missions, in peacetime or in war.
Yes Makran eventually delivers its cargo to Syria, or any other customer, so that may be the case for this new class of warship. Yet only countries intending to flout international sanctions or embargoes could pursue a similar concept.