Two Iranian Navy Ships Transit The English Channel

Two Iranian vessels travelled through the English Channel on the 19 July, spotted by satellite imagery. According to Iranian state media, the ships are headed to the Russian city of St. Petersburg where they will take part in the 25 July Russian ‘navy day’ naval parade in commemoration of the Russian Navy’s 325th anniversary.

Satellite imagery published by depicting SAHAND vessel moving in for an STS (Ship-to-Ship) transfer of fuel while both steam northeast towards the English Channel.

IRINS Makran, an oil-tanker converted into a warship, and frigate IRINS Sahand, opted to wrap around Africa the long way, adding an estimate of 10,000 miles to their journey. It’s unclear whether the Iranian navy opted for this route due to Egypt denying them access through the Suez Canal, or due to logistical hurdles. In 2019 a civilian Iranian oil tanker had to take the long route as oil tankers with over 20 meters of their hull submerged below the waterline had to rely on Saudi-owned infrastructure at the canal. Leaked photos of the two ships from earlier this month suggest that the tanker was indeed loaded to its full capacity, leading to speculation that it was en route to Venezuela at the time. 

IRINS Markan post commissioning. Photo released by state owned Young Journalist Club news network.

Ever since it was first observed by international media, the IRINS Markan has been difficult to categorize. Initially, it was thought to be a forward-based ship, making it comparable to a U.S. Navy Expeditionary Sea Base (ESB) vessels, which is akin to a floating base of operations that can carry or support small boats and aircraft. Makran has been reported to have carried small unmanned air vehicles and small-sized submarines, while also featuring a small helicopter pad. However, considering its main load capacity being taken up by its oil tank, and Iran’s limited naval range negating the need for a dedicated oiler, it’s highly suspected that the Makran will be serving an entirely new role, that of helping Iranian allies avoid international sanctions. By being a designated warship, it Makrancan serve as a blockade runner, supplying fuel while enjoying the legal protections of a warship, posing a new test to international law and norms.