What is the Iranian navy doing in the southern Atlantic? It is a question that Pentagon officials have had a hard time answering since late May, when they became aware that a large, repurposed oil tanker and a newly built frigate—both with Iran’s navy—were sailing past the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, heading westward.
Officially, the Iranians sent both ships to improve “their seafaring capacity” in untested, difficult waters far from home. If nothing else, Iran is flexing its muscles and seeking to project power beyond its near abroad. But U.S. officials worry that the larger ship—which satellite imagery shows is carrying seven fast boats of the type Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps use in the Persian Gulf to swarm larger vessels—may be carrying weapons to its Southern Hemisphere ally, Venezuela.
The U.S. has an arms embargo against Venezuela—but it applies only to U.S. exports. So does the European Union, but its embargo does not extend to third parties. The U.S. may have a legal basis to interdict the shipment’s delivery, and it has publicly warned both Venezuela and Cuba—another possible recipient of the cargo—to turn those ships away. If the ships turn up in the Caribbean Sea, U.S. Southern Command might take action to interdict them, with a potential escalation looming.
So far, there is no sign Iran will be backing off. For Iran, Venezuela is an important ally. Both countries have helped each other evade U.S. sanctions. Both countries espouse an anti-imperialist ideological agenda that aspires to diminish U.S. prominence in the world. Iran has used Venezuela to spread its propaganda in the region. Venezuela has relied on Iran to mitigate the worst effects of its own disastrous economic mismanagement. Iran has taken payment in barter or gold—both good ways to address its own economic difficulties.
Iran has also been ferrying mysterious goods by cargo plane to Venezuela for quite some time, and it could deliver weapons—if this is indeed what the ships’ journey is about—by cargo plane. What, then, is the reason for the lengthy journey across perilous waters, by two warships, if not to poke America in the eye?
Because it thinks Washington will not push back, Iran is trying to provoke the United States in its own backyard, even at a time when the two sides appear close to a deal in Vienna to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Biden administration has done everything in its power to make Iran think the U.S. is in retreat. It has done so in the hope of mollifying Iran and persuading it to negotiate. It has repeatedly said that “maximum pressure,” the Trump administration’s Iran strategy, did not yield any result. And so the new administration has dusted off the old policy playbook from the Obama administration.
In the first months of his tenure, President Biden has made a point of signaling to Washington’s Middle East allies that he is shifting U.S. policy back to the Obama days. He appointed numerous Obama-era officials to key foreign policy positions, bringing back many from the Obama team that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal—including Robert Malley as special envoy to Iran—to key positions inside the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council.
Within weeks of taking office, the president authorized the unfreezing of billions of dollars of Iranian oil money that sanctions had blocked in Iraq and South Korea. This move eased the financial squeeze Iran was feeling—its oil sales in 2020 had all but collapsed—and gave it breathing space even before it made any concessions.
The Biden administration chose to react to multiple Iranian attacks through Iraqi proxy militias by first downplaying Iran’s role and then by launching only a limited symbolic strike in Syria in response.
The administration also revoked the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, even as Houthi rebels rained down missiles on civilian targets inside Saudi Arabia. Washington also terminated U.S. intelligence support for Saudi-led coalition operations in Yemen and ordered a review of weapons deals to Gulf states signed during the Trump administration.
U.S. diplomats have also declined to press Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog in charge of policing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, despite piling evidence of multiple instances of suspicious, unexplained, and troubling nuclear activity. Condemnation at the IAEA could derail the talks.
So could anything else, if you ask the administration. Iranian proxies target American forces? A tough response could derail the talks. Releasing American citizens held hostages in Iran? Let us focus on the talks. And then the latest move, which came last Thursday: the delisting of formerly sanctioned companies and individuals involved in Iran’s oil sector, including sales and shipping, prior to Iranian concessions.
President Obama took the same approach. In November 2013, he endorsed the Joint Plan of Action, or JPOA, which was the blueprint for the JCPOA. Under the JPOA, Iran received sanctions relief before making any significant concession. Then, to mollify the regime in Iran, President Obama stymied Project Cassandra—a Drug Enforcement Administration-led, decade-long project to combat the Iran-backed Hezbollah’s money-laundering and drug trafficking global networks.
But while Washington thinks that the key to détente with Tehran is constraint and concessions, these actions indicate weakness in Tehran’s eyes. A military convoy dispatched to the U.S. backyard is more than a test of seafaring capacity. It is a statement. Iran is provoking the U.S. because it can.
Events following the Iran deal offer a clear insight into why Iran feels it can dispatch warships to America’s backyard with impunity. The ink was not even dry yet on the JCPOA when Iran began to use its national airline, Iran Air, to move thousands of militia fighters to Syria at the height of its civil war. This was the same airline that, as a major beneficiary of the JCPOA, was about to buy hundreds of Western-made aircraft. Why would Iran jeopardize the nuclear deal and its economic benefits? Because it could. Because it correctly gamed the scenario and anticipated President Obama would not jeopardize what he viewed as a historic diplomatic achievement by acting against the delinquent airline. Tehran knew the U.S. would not push back.
Which brings us back to the two warships. Iran sent them to signal its strength and defiance. It is a challenge to the Biden administration because Tehran, so far correctly, has calculated that the U.S. will do nothing if it thinks it can jeopardize nuclear talks.
Washington should not fall into this trap. The regime in Tehran is not going to walk away from talks that could restore its economic clout—an essential tool in its pursuit of broader global influence. Besides, what is Iran going to do? The U.S. killed Qassem Suleimani, their top general, in January 2020, yet Tehran did little in response.
Tehran needs to know Washington will exact a pound of flesh for its reckless behavior. So far, the Biden administration has given them no reason to think there are any risks involved in provoking Washington. Maybe the two ships will give President Biden an opportunity to reassess his erstwhile inclination to give Tehran a pass.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan think tank focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi.