Iran Warship Heading to Atlantic Barely Survived Earlier Tangle With U.S. Navy

By Patrick Goodenough | February 10, 2014 | 4:34 AM EST

The Iranian frigate Sahand burns after being attacked by a U.S. destroyer and A-6E Intruder aircraft in the Persian Gulf on April 18, 1988. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

( – One of two warships which Iran says it is sending to the Atlantic Ocean to send a “message” to the United States had a serious run-in with the U.S. Navy 26 years ago, and barely survived to tell the tale.

The Iranian Navy frigate Sabalan reportedly is now underway on a three-month, 25,000 nautical mile voyage around the southern tip of Africa and then to unspecified waters in the Atlantic where, an Iranian naval commander said at the weekend, it would approach the maritime boundaries of the U.S.

Assuming the Sabalan and accompanying vessel, logistic support ship Kharg, get that far, one possible destination may be Venezuela, Iran’s closest ally in the western hemisphere. The maritime boundaries of Venezuela and the U.S. are only several hundred miles apart in the Puerto Rico area.

Iranian media reported that the two ships set sail from Iran’s port of Bandar Abbas on January 21 for what will be Iran’s first naval mission to the Atlantic.

“The Iranian Army’s naval fleets have already started their voyage towards the Atlantic Ocean via the waters near South Africa,” the semi-official Fars news agency quoted Admiral Afshin Rezayee Haddad as saying on Saturday.

“Iran’s military fleet is approaching the United States’ maritime borders, and this move has a message,” he said.

Fars said the trip was a response to a beefed-up U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf, including large war games conducted from the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet.

(Dozens of nations took part in the U.S.-hosted International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2013 in those waters, and in its predecessor the previous year. Iran has periodically threatened to close the Gulf’s strategic Strait of Hormuz.)

Fars reported that Iran’s top naval officer, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, first flagged the planned Atlantic voyage more than two years ago, quoting him as saying at the time, “Like the arrogant powers that are present near our maritime borders, we will also have a powerful presence close to the American marine borders.”

How “powerful” remains to be seen. Sabalan came up against the U.S. Navy in a skirmish back in 1988, and according to published accounts only survived because of a U.S. decision to let her limp back home.

The incident occurred during the Iran-Iraq War, after the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts was damaged by a mine in the Persian Gulf. In response the U.S. launched “Operation Praying Mantis,” an action against Iranian naval forces in the area.

A6-E Intruder aircraft from Attack Squadron 52 (the “Green Lizards”), deployed on the USS Enterprise, attacked Iranian speedboats, destroying one and damaging another. When an Iranian frigate named Sahand fired surface-to-air missiles at the planes, the Intruders and a U.S. warship responded with missiles and laser-guided bombs, badly damaging Sahand, which quickly sank.

Sahand’s sister-ship, Sabalan, then left her berth and fired a surface-to-air missile at the Intruders. In response one of the aircraft hit the Iranian ship with a laser-guided bomb. According to a history of the Green Lizards, Sabalan was left “dead in the water; the ship was taken under tow with its stern submerged.”

Bradley Peniston’s 2013 book No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf recounts that the Intruder dropped its bomb down the Iranian ship’s smokestack.

“It exploded in the engine room and broke the Sabalan’s keel,” Peniston wrote. “Another group of planes was inbound from the Enterprise when [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. William] Crowe, monitoring the battle in the Pentagon’s command center, called off the attack.

“‘We’ve shed enough blood today,’ he told [Defense Secretary Frank] Carlucci. Iranian tugs eventually retrieved the damaged Sabalan as U.S. ships looked on.”

The ship was later repaired and returned to service.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow