Both an Iranian warship’s passage through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean on 22 February 2011 and Iranian warships paying port calls in the Sudan a year later have reinforced the fact that the Iranian Navy has expanded its operational reach. The push into the Pacific comes less than three months after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared that the Iranian Navy’s new emphasis should be expanding its reach beyond the Persian Gulf.
The Iranian flotilla, comprising a destroyer and a helicopter carrier, may symbolically demonstrate Iran’s naval resurgence, but logistical constraints—fueling and resupply—should keep the Iranian vessels close to shore. As such, however, Tehran’s dispatch of its navy into the Pacific might be considered a diplomatic shot across the bow. Beyond pulling into Zhangjiagang, a port just north of Shanghai, the flotilla is also expected to pay a port call in Sri Lanka on its way home.
Whether or not the Iranian vessels are resupplied at sea might shed light on Iran’s logistical capabilities, and where else Iranian military vessels pull into port—perhaps in Pakistan and Burma (Myanmar)—might also shed light on Iranian efforts to develop military ties with Asia. The implication of any Iranian military vessels continuing on to North Korea is alarming. While Tehran and Pyongyang cooperate commercially and, according to Western press reports, in the covert exchange of nuclear technology as well, overt military cooperation would suggest confidence and augmentation of ties which might challenge the West.
As a side note, Sayyari is wrong to suggest that an Iranian navy has never passed the Strait of Malacca, between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. During the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century, Muslim pirates consisting of both Arabs and Persians (the Chinese at the time seldom differentiated) burned Canton (modern Guangzhou) to the ground, a fact about which Persian nationalists might remember, but Iranian authorities most likely will not trumpet during this voyage.