On Monday, it was reported that the first of three ships in an Iranian flotilla had entered Venezuelan waters in accordance with a scheme to even sanctions the U.S. has imposed on both countries. On the same day, the U.S. Treasury Department announced the further expansion of those sanctions, with targets including Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro and Iran’s Ministry of Defense. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continued to defend that Trump administration’s strategy of “maximum pressure,” arguing that Iran has been effectively isolated despite lingering opposition to that strategy from historical USU.S. partners.
The sanctions on the Defense Ministry and persons involved in Iran’s weapons program are reportedly intended to buttress the White House’s assertion that European criticism will not prevent the re-implementation of multilateral sanctions that were suspended under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The U.S. declared those sanctions back in force last week, following its failure to formalize the process at the United Nations Security Council earlier in the month. Although President Trump pulled the U.S. out of that agreement in May 2018, his administration asserted the legal right to use its “snapback” provision in order to prevent an arms embargo on the Islamic Republic from expiring on October 18.
The preservation of that embargo has arguably been made more important by the ongoing growth in tensions between Iran and the United States, some of which are related to the Venezuela scheme. The flotilla that is currently in transit is not the first to carry petroleum products from the Islamic Republic to the South American socialist country in order to alleviate the latter’s severe gasoline shortage. One set of ships previously unloaded Iranian-refined fuel in May, whereas another attempted shipment of more than one million barrels was seized by American authorities in August.
The first of these incidents raised questions about the U.S. government’s willingness to fully enforce its sanctions in the face of attempts at evasion. But the second cast doubts upon Iran’s assertion that it would meet such enforcement with strong retaliation. Nonetheless, those threats have been repeated in the current context, as the world waits to see whether the U.S. will attempt to obstruct the Iranian tankers’ course to Venezuela this time. This in turn provides additional incentive for the U.S. to follow up on its latest sanctions, in an effort to guarantee that the Islamic Republic does not have the means to realize those threats.
Already, though, Iranian authorities have attempted to project an image of escalating strength, much of it focused on naval capabilities. On Sunday, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) unveiled a new ballistic missile dubbed the Zolfaghar Basir. It is reportedly a naval variant of the existing Zolfaghar ballistic missile, with the same range of 700 kilometers. If these claims are true, it more than doubles the prior range of Iran’s naval missiles. What’s more, that equipment has a new potential home in the Martyr Seyed Majid Rahbar base that the IRGC unveiled last week.
The IRGC’s high commander, Major General Hossein Salami, told state media that “this base has been built with the purpose of total dominance over the entry and exit of extraterritorial aircraft and naval vessels” at the entry to the Persian Gulf, having been established in the southern province of Hormozgan, near the Strait of Hormuz. In the midst of previous tensions with the U.S., Iranian officials have repeatedly threatened to close off that waterway, through which about one-fifth of the world’s oil is traded. The establishment of the new base arguably lends additional credence to these threats, although it remains an open question whether Tehran would actually attempt to follow through with the plan, and thus risk a devastating war, in response to provocations like the American seizure of sanctioned Iranian oil.
On Sunday, the Lawfare blog published a detailed analysis by Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in which he suggested that such retaliation was very unlikely, barring a series of catastrophic missteps by both the U.S. and Iran. Eisenstadt noted that there have been many incidents over the years which led to widespread claims that Iran and the U.S. had come to the brink of war, yet none of these claims had been substantiated by subsequent events. He went on to state that this notion of looming armed conflict has actually been promoted by Iranian officials themselves, on the understanding that it hinders Western policy and prevents the full utilization of non-military pressure tactics.
Eisenstadt’s observations encourage the interpretation of Iran’s military claims as representing more bluster than legitimate threats. On the other hand, he specifically warned American policymakers against underestimating Iran’s capabilities or overestimating “their own ability to deter destabilizing actions.” But the Trump administration is arguably working to avoid these mistakes by impeding Iran’s capabilities in order to strengthen the relevant American deterrence.
Toward that end, the U.S. State Department has made a point of focusing many of its sanctions upon Iran’s ballistic missile program, noting in a recent statement that “Iran possesses the largest ballistic missile force in the Middle East, and it has exported both missiles and missile production.” This statement was cited by Seth J. Frantzman on Saturday in a Newsweek editorial that described Iran’s ballistic missiles as “the elephant in the room in discussions about renewed U.S. sanctions on Tehran,” then praised the Trump administration and Secretary Pompeo for prioritizing the issue.
The implication of such praise is that by directly addressing Iranian militarism as part of a broadly-conceived “maximum pressure” strategy, the U.S. can better protect against the missteps that might lead to an unlikely conflict, while also being relatively free to enforce other restrictions, including the restrictions on Iran’s illicit, global oil trade.