Iran’s two-ship surface action group was spotted this week in port in Cape Town, South Africa, after failing to transit the Panama Canal, according to satellite images provided to USNI News by Maxar.
IRIS Makran and IRIS Dena were spotted in port on April 4 after completing an Atlantic transit after operating off the east coast of South America.
The pair of ships have been on a worldwide tour since last year, sailing from Iran through the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, around Cape Horn to the Atlantic Ocean and arrived off the coast in South America early in January.
Last month, Iranian state media played up an expanded economic relationship with South Africa that included plans to open a new economic development office.
Makran, a converted oil tanker, has operated as an oiler for the group, allowing the two ships to operate far-extended stretches between port calls.
It’s the second time in two years Makran has been part of a high-visibility deployment. In 2021, the ship and the frigate IRINS Sahand deployed to the Baltic Sea after sailing around the southern tip of Africa.
The ships made a port call in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in February under protest from the U.S. government.
Shortly before the port visit, U.S. officials targeted the ships for sanctions as part of an ongoing effort to punish Iran’s lethal drone for supplying the Russian military with drones for its invasion of Ukraine.
“Iranian entities continue to produce UAVs for Iran’s IRGC and military. More broadly, Iran is supplying UAVs for Russia’s combat operations to target critical infrastructure in Ukraine,” said Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson in a statement. “The United States will continue to aggressively target all elements of Iran’s UAV program.”
The deployment was set to push boundaries for the Iranian Navy, which has been slowly expanding its worldwide presence.
The arrival of the Makran and Dena in South Africa follows promises by the Iranian military that Iranian Navy ships would transit the Panama Canal this year.
“We have been present in all the strategic straits of the world and we have not been present in only two straits, in one of which we will be present this year and we are planning to be present in the Panama Canal,” Navy Commander Rear Adm. Shahram Irani told Fars News in December.
“We have formed three oceanic commands, including the Indian Ocean Command, the Pacific Ocean Command and the Atlantic Ocean Command.”
Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told USNI News the port calls at the end of the deployment are part of Tehran’s diplomatic effort.
“As Makran and Dena make their way home, port calls are more than just ways to refuel or restock supplies. They are part and parcel of the Islamic Republic’s diplomatic strategy to break out of the box of being a pariah regime,” he told USNI News on Thursday.
“The port call caps a Trans-Atlantic journey, something Tehran has been interested in signaling a capability to undertake for over a decade but has faced numerous shortcomings.”