Two Iranian warships spotted near the English Channel

HI Sutton Chart

Two Iranian warships approach 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 July 25 naval parade off St Petersburg to commemorate the 325th anniversary of the Russian Navy.

The pair, the IRINS frigate sahand and former tanker turned warship IRINS Makran, sailed up the west coast of Africa past Spain and France before approaching the south coast of England. Leaving Iran in April with weapons and likely refined fuel, the pair were expected to head first to Venezuela before lingering off the coast of Senegal and then heading to the North Atlantic.

As ships cross the English Channel, NATO will likely keep a close eye on warships. Until clear photos emerge, the question remains whether the converted tanker still has the fast boats it was carrying on board or is rolling low in the water, indicating it could be loaded with gas refined or petroleum.

The ship slowly preceded with a light frigate, or what Iran calls a “destroyer”, as an escort. Based on sporadic Automated Identification System (AIS) transmissions tracked via MarineTraffic.com, the vessels lingered for about a week off Dakar, Senegal. AIS transmissions were intermittent and ambiguous at times, but open-source intelligence experts were able to keep a reasonable record of their true path.

USNI News Artwork by HI Sutton

When Makran has been first observed in November 2020, the ship was considered by Western observers to be an advanced base ship. This was equivalent to its role as that of US Navy Expeditionary Sea Based Base (ESB) ships, such as the USS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams (BSE-4). ESBs act as a floating base for operations and can transport or support a range of small boats and aircraft. Makran practiced launching unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and mini-submarines for special forces, involving an amphibious warfare role. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy has two forward base ships, although both are much smaller than Makran.

Makran is a unique warship that entered service with the Iranian Navy in January. Although exact definitions vary from navy to navy, there is a common notion of what destroyers, frigates and cruisers are. And the same goes for naval auxiliaries such as tankers, submarine tenders and hospital ships. The status of the converted tanker is still unclear. Naturally, Iran is suspected of using Makran as a blockade runner, delivering fuel to sanctioned allies under the legal protection of a warship. While naval auxiliaries can support humanitarian efforts, their use to evade sanctions is a new test of international standards. Although there have been occasions when surface combatants and submarines have been used to transport high value cargo, Makran increases its survivability by using international law.

HI Sutton Chart

The Advanced Base Ship label is not entirely wrong. Makran is equipped with a large helipad, but has no hangars, and can deploy small boats or mini-submarines from its deck. But when it left Iran in May, it appeared to be on a transport mission, delivering seven missile boats to a foreign country, according to US statements about the ship’s destination and satellite photos of its cargo. And it was later determined by USNI News that it was likely fully charged with oil or fuel. When he was not heading to Venezuela, the next likely destination was thought to be Syria.

Iran exported fuel to Venezuela despite international sanctions. However, some shipments were banned by the United States in August 2020, four shipments were seized. Previously, in July 2019, the tanker Grace 1 carrying Iranian oil bound for Syria was seized in Gibraltar.

All tankers involved were merchant ships. Corn Makran is a naval auxiliary, which affords him some protection under international law. As a naval auxiliary, she is classed as a warship and therefore entitled to sovereign immunity. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it is immune from the jurisdiction of any other state. Thus, he or his cargo could not be seized in the same way as civilian ships.

There is, however, a compromise. As a naval auxiliary, in time of war, he is not entitled to belligerent rights during an armed conflict. This means that he cannot legally carry out attacks. Thus, long-range anti-ship missiles, like those carried on another Iranian forward base ship, Shahid Roudaki, could not be credibly edited. Corn Makran has none, only helicopters, short-range cannons or six-position automatic cannon and machine guns are equipped. And like the U.S. Naval Auxiliaries, it can carry out the full range of naval support missions in peacetime or war.

Yes Makran ultimately delivers its cargo to Syria, or any other customer, then that may be the case for this new class of warship. Yet only countries intent on flouting international sanctions or embargoes could pursue a similar concept.