The United States is seeking, through private diplomatic channels, to urge the governments of Venezuela and Cuba to remove two Iranian navy ships believed to be carrying weapons to Caracas as they make their way across the Atlantic to Venezuela, according to three people familiar with the matter, quoted by Politico.
POLITICO had reported a few days ago that national security officials in the United States believed that the two ships were heading towards Venezuela, after the relevant agencies followed their movement south along the east coast of the African continent and then towards the Atlantic Ocean.
Washington also believes that the ships are loaded with military equipment.
Two defense officials and a congressional official told the newspaper on Wednesday that the White House is pressuring Caracas and Havana through diplomatic channels not to allow the ships to dock in their countries. The congressional official said that administration officials, Joe Biden, are proactively communicating with other governments in the region to ensure that they refuse to receive them.
Meanwhile, Caracas is trying to take advantage of the situation to ease US sanctions imposed by the administration of former President Donald Trump, according to two people familiar with the situation. US mediators told Venezuelan officials that allowing the ships to dock would reduce the chance of the United States easing sanctions on the country.
However, Tehran is pressing ahead with the voyage hoping to pressure Caracas to allow the ships to dock, according to a defense official.
US intelligence agencies have evidence that the Makran, one of the two ships bound for Venezuela, is carrying “fast attack” boats likely intended for sale to Venezuela, according to a second defense official and another person familiar with intelligence on the case.
Last week, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby warned that the delivery of new weapons “would be a provocative and threatening act to our partners in this hemisphere.” He added that the United States reserves the right to “take appropriate measures, in coordination with our partners, to deter the delivery or transfer of such weapons.”
Over the past two weeks, American officials have been monitoring the progress of the two ships from the Gulf, down the east coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, and are now heading northwest across the Atlantic. The “Makran” is escorted by the Iranian frigate “Sahand”, according to the report.
Half the journey completed
As of Wednesday morning, the ships had completed more than half the voyage from Iran to Venezuela, and were slowly sailing northwest, more than 1,600 kilometers from Cape Town, South Africa, according to the second defense official briefed on the situation.
“This is the first time that the Iranian navy has circled the Cape of Good Hope or reached this far across the Atlantic,” Politico said.
Farzin Nadimi, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said his biggest concern is that the potential delivery of fast-attack boats to Venezuela would include training. “If Iran helps Venezuela develop tactics similar to those practiced by the Revolutionary Guards in the Gulf region, this could have serious repercussions in the future,” he said.
Politico reported that Iranian fast-attack boats recently harassed US Coast Guard cutters in the Gulf.
The end of the UN arms embargo on Iran means increased exports and imports of military equipment, now that Tehran is “free” to do so, said Christine Fontrose, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former National Security Council official during the Trump administration.
She continued, “This may be the first of many (weapons) transfers that we will see. It allows Iran to arm failed governments or groups that work for them and make them larger than they can do … They are creating followers all over the world capable of threatening American interests.