Lost at Sea: How Two Iranian Warships Are Testing American Mettle

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. 

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