This development is fascinating for multiple reasons. One, of course, is the simple fact of the new assessment from “U.S. officials.” Politico seems to be appointed to receive their updates.
Another reason: the new assessment is that the Iranian ships, the frigate Sahand and the forward-base ship Makran, are “now steaming north up the west coast of Africa,” which if they’re headed for Gibraltar is where I would expect them to be, as previously noted. It was also likely if they were going to Venezuela that they would make most of the voyage along the coast of Africa.
Another reason is the faint air of self-congratulation in the “analysis” of the course change.
“U.S. officials believe the course change indicates that a diplomatic campaign to urge governments in the Western Hemisphere to turn away the ships was successful, the official said,” according to Politico. “The Iranian frigate Sahand and afloat staging base Makran charted a new course after Biden administration officials publicly and privately urged the governments of Venezuela, Cuba and other countries in the region not to allow them to dock, POLITICO reported.”
It continues to be the case that we are not hearing from anyone identified as a U.S. Navy official in this saga. That may change, but the Defense Department as a whole has consistently declined to comment on it when questions have been forwarded based on the anonymous disclosures to Politico. Last week spokespersons for the Pentagon and U.S. Northern Command, which is charged with immediate defense of the U.S. homeland, made formal statements (11 June) after Iran announced the deployment on state-controlled media (10 June). And as previously noted, Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke of the deployment in very general terms last week in a congressional hearing.
But we’re not getting details, even general ones (like “the Iranians have made multiple course changes”), from the DOD. The State Department has spoken of the Iranian naval saga publicly more often.
It’s the State Department that would draw a conclusion like the one cited above: that U.S. diplomacy had deflected the Iranian ships from Venezuela. Regardless of what internal speculation defense analysts might engage in, it’s not their lane, or their bosses’, to make such comments for public consumption — and they wouldn’t, even anonymously. That analysis came from State or higher.
It’s a pretty sure bet that’s where the anonymous disclosures from “U.S. officials” are coming from to Politico. I suggest keeping that in mind. DOD analysts’ goal is to track the Iranians’ activity. The goal of State or White House officials making anonymous disclosures is to tell a story — in this case, about the Iranians’ expedition and the Biden administration.
With that in mind, think about this: the narrative that the U.S. forestalled a delivery to Venezuela will blunt the impact of not forestalling a delivery to Syria. It’s no better for Makran to make it to Syria with a cargo of arms and fuel, but it seems like a smaller failure of U.S. policy if there’s a narrative that at least Makran didn’t go to Venezuela.
That raises the obvious question whether there was ever a proximate reason to think the Iranian ships this time were headed to Venezuela. Unanswerable from out in the cheap seats.
It does raise the additional question — one I expected to raise if the ships went to the Med: have the Iranians been trying to evade or deceive the U.S.’s intelligence apparatus — or Israel’s? (For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t bet against Israel knowing where the ships are and what they’re doing.)
A final point of fascination. Of course, the new assessment from the anonymous officials, that the Iranian ships may be going to Syria (or perhaps to Russia’s Northern Fleet, though I consider that very unlikely; a spurious addition to a narrative), mirrors that of the Tanker Trackers OSINT group. Politico mentions Tanker Trackers in the article.
But the timing of the new Politico article is the darnedest thing. I don’t advance any claims or conclusions here; I merely note it with interest. The Politico article was posted, according to the dateline, at 12:56 PM EDT on 17 June 2021.
Note that the Tanker Trackers tweet with the estimate about Gibraltar and Syria was posted on 14 June.
We believe that the Iranian navy vessels MAKRAN and SAHAND are on their way to Syria in order to engage in navy exercises with Russia. They will be able to pass Gibraltar on July 4th, which is the 2yr anniversary since the GRACE 1 supertanker was arrested en route to Syria. #OOTT pic.twitter.com/OHi8IJ3cF7
— TankerTrackers.com, Inc. (@TankerTrackers) June 14, 2021
My article from earlier on the 17th was posted at 7:46 AM EDT, or about five hours before the Politico article. Again, no conclusions or assumptions are implied. It’s just interesting. It may well be that we’re going to find the Iranian ships going through the Strait of Gibraltar sooner than the Tanker Trackers suggest. The ships have had way more than enough time to get that far since departing Bandar Abbas. Staying ahead of the narrative may dictate dropping the “course change” update now.