Reports that two Iranian frigates may be steaming into the Atlantic toward Venezuela ought to concentrate minds in the
Administration. So much for Iranian goodwill amid President Biden’s determination to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal.
The vessels’ destination isn’t clear, and they could still turn back. But when asked by reporters on Monday about U.S. monitoring of the frigates, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said “Iran has constant presence in international waters, is entitled to this right on the basis of international law, and can be present in international waters.” He added: “I warn that nobody should make a miscalculation. Those who live in glass houses must be cautious.”
Iran’s navy isn’t the U.S. Sixth Fleet, but the entry of warships into Caribbean waters would be a notable provocation. If it sails into these waters without resistance, a precedent will be set for adversarial navies operating in the region. Don’t be surprised if Russia and China decide to join the party in the future.
Iran is a long-time Cuban ally, and since
turned Venezuela into a dictatorship 20 years ago, Tehran has nurtured an ever-closer relationship with Caracas. The two regimes have engaged in joint defense ventures in the Venezuelan state of Aragua, and Venezuela is known to supply fake identities to Iranian operatives to move around the region.
Venezuela’s point man for Iran is
Tareck El Aissami,
now oil minister. Iran is an essential energy supplier for the South American basket case, where domestic gasoline production has collapsed amid a shortage of resources, maintenance failures and corruption.
U.S. sanctions have blocked regular gasoline and diesel imports, and Tehran has sent enough tankers to keep
dictatorship afloat. Iranian tankers delivering gasoline have also tested evasion techniques to navigate from international waters into Venezuelan waters without being intercepted.
Iran’s timing may be related to the annual joint military exercises between the U.S. and its regional allies scheduled for June 12-26. This year’s host for the exercises is Venezuelan neighbor Guyana. Mr. Maduro disputes the maritime border with Guyana, so an Iranian naval presence in those waters carries risks of confrontation.
But even without a clash with the U.S., Iran’s delivery of more military hardware and technology to Venezuela is a threat to U.S. interests and Latin friends. One target of opportunity could be shipping to or from the Panama Canal, as commercial routes to the Canal are near the Venezuelan coast.
The U.S. Naval Institutereported Tuesday that one of the Iranian ships has “seven high-speed missile-attack craft strapped to its deck.” Those sound like the craft that often harass U.S. naval ships in the Persian Gulf.
All of this should give Mr. Biden pause as he rushes to appease Iran with a renewed nuclear deal. A strategic conceit of Biden officials is that reviving the deal will help the U.S. withdraw from the Mideast. But Iran may be showing that the Mideast may follow the U.S. home.
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Appeared in the June 2, 2021, print edition.