In a bizarre attempt to convince the world that its navy is important, Iran continues to claim that its navy is involved in a “circumnavigation” of the globe. Iran’s Fars News claimed this week that the Iranian navy was in “America’s backyard” and that it will “travel around the world for the first time.”
It's not entirely clear why Iran wants its relatively small navy to travel around the world. Its navy isn’t historically important and there is no reason that its small fleet of ships needs to be able to operate or project power so far from home.
The Iranian threat at sea
Insofar as Iran wants to threaten others at sea, it already does this with its long-range drones. Its navy can project power into the Indian Ocean and even as far as the Mediterranean, but it has no real role in the region. This is because other navies, such as the US fleets, would be able to destroy the Iranian navy in a matter of hours or days if there was ever a real conflict.
Nevertheless, Iran has spoken about wanting to be able to engage in amphibious operations and Iran wants its naval ships to join with Russia and China in joint drills. The Iranian naval “circumnavigation” of the globe, first announced in October 2022, is, therefore, all about showing off. It’s about showing that Iran can sail to waters near the US, or to Russia and China. It’s not about actually being able to accomplish much along the way.
The era of navies showing off by sailing around the world is long gone these days. More than 100 years ago, the US “Great White Fleet,” named for the color of the ships, sailed around the world between 1907 and 1909. That fleet represented the US growing naval power and was designed to show off the fleet to emerging powers like Japan.
The fleet had some 14,000 sailors and covered 43,000 nautical miles and went to at least 20 important ports. It had more than a dozen major ships. Sir Francis Drake also circumnavigated the world from 1577 to 1580 in a display of English naval power. His fleet had five ships.
Iran's naval aspirations
Iran’s circumnavigation was announced in October 2022. The flotilla was supposed to leave on October 28. At the time Tasnim News reported that "Rear Admiral Shahram Irani said the 86th flotilla of the Iranian Navy that set sail on September 28 is planned to circumnavigate the globe in its mission in order to exhibit the Iranian nation’s power. The 86th flotilla is conveying the message of peace and friendship to the world nations."
The Iranian navy would send the Sahand, Dena and Jamaran vessels on the voyage. These had been operating in the Gulf of Oman and the Red Sea apparently.
Last week, Tasnim said that the Iranian Navy’s 86th flotilla of warships was going to arrive at the port of Rio de Janeiro. “The Iranian flotilla, comprised of Dena and Makran warships, will reportedly arrive at the Brazilian port within the next few days,” the report said.
Iran has said that the Iranian navy's progress is important because it has sent ships through the Suez Canal and that this was designed to send a message to “the Zionists.”
The Iranian reports also highlight that ships have visited Russia and China. Iran is also proud that its fleet was able to sail near the UK and that it plans to pass ships through the Panama Canal. It’s not clear when the ships will go to the canal. Iran has close ties with Venezuela and its ships may go to port there or in Cuba on their way to the canal. Where they will go after the canal is unclear.
Tasnim notes “the presence of the naval flotilla of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Panama Strait, which is considered to be America's backyard, has a very important message for the Americans. The message is this; no one is able to create a barrier against the power of the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and this fleet sails in all waters of the world with the message of peace and friendship.”
Insofar as messaging goes, there is no doubt the voyage is sending a message. However, in terms of projecting naval power, it is not really showing off Iran’s power. Nevertheless, the fact that Iran has engaged in this project is important. That Iran wants everyone to know about it shows how it brags about its abilities, even if the abilities are not that impressive.