Teddy Roosevelt, greatest American proponent of gunboat diplomacy, signaled the arrival of the United States to the status of great power by sending the Great White Fleet around the world. For a nation rich in industrial power but previously lacking in global reach, such a move that demonstrated the full reach of American power. Less than a decade after the fleet was launched, the United States would find herself as the crucial late entrant into the Great War, who felt she had no choice but to enter the war after her shipping had been attacked. Since then, the US navy has grown itself into the most powerful such force in the world, with an 11-to-1 carrier advantage over every other navy. There are those who write that American history in the 20th century can be understood as the legacy of this early naval ambition.
This is the backdrop against which the latest developments of Iranian naval ambition have been set. W. Jonathan Rue, writing in Foreign Affairs, notes that
Iran’s navy is an active component of Iran’s activist foreign policy. The country’s leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly said that Iran’s navy is the critical foundation on which its long-term development and prosperity rests.
He goes on to discuss what an active navy means for the gulf states, and what this means for reigning power in the Persian Gulf, the United States Fifth Fleet. Rue does not explicitly sound a warning, noting that most gulf states are understandably more concerned with Iranian nuclear ambition than they are worried about Iran challenging US naval dominance in the area. While Rue dismisses the idea that Iran will ever reach parity with the US Navy, Rue does mention the most symbolic aspiration of Iran’s naval policy: the deployment of ships to patrol the Western Atlantic.
Writing at Gunpowder and Lead, Rue details the challenges of Iran actually bringing ships into the Atlantic, Firstly, Iran does not have warships with the capacity to make a round trip on their own, so any exploratory mission would have to rely on friendly port cities willing to host and refuel the fleet as it set sail. Secondly, if the fleet did cross the Atlantic it would require a friendly country to host it. Given the good nature of Iranian/Venezuelan relations, it is entirely possible that Hugo Chavez would be a willing host, so it is not impossible that Iran could maintain ships once they arrived. The chance of such an arrival is risky; Rue writes
“The shortest route between Iran and Venezuela, via the Suez Canal, is roughly 8,700 nautical miles (nm). If Iran decided to make a port call in Syria, the trip could be reduced to roughly 6,000 nm. That distance would still stretch the limits of Iran’s capabilities. The Kharg class replenishment ship can make that journey alone, but carrying fuel for itself and the frigate could be a challenge. The Alvand class frigate only has a range of 3,650 nm. So, Iran would have to be able to execute what’s known as underway replenishment, a challenging and dangerous undertaking even for the U.S. Navy who performs it regularly. Iran is said to be developing this capability, but it’s still unknown.
A century ago, when the United States undertook it’s great white naval expedition, the conditions were a lot more favorable. The United States had both a larger fleet and access to a wider array of ports, including island refueling stations. Should Iran succeed in such a transatlantic journey and begin patrolling the Caribbean, it will send a similar message: the arrival of a new major power that must be taken seriously.