WASHINGTON (Dispatches) – U.S. security agencies are keeping a close eye on two Iranian warships that may be headed toward Venezuela, anonymous sources have told Washington-based online political journalism network Politico.
An Iranian frigate and a former oil tanker known as the Makran are currently sailing south along the east coast of Africa, they said.
U.S. officials do not know for sure the destination of the Iranian ships, the officials said, but believe they may be ultimately headed for Venezuela, Politico said.
The 755-foot long Makran, which was commissioned this year, can serve as a platform for electronic warfare and special operations missions. Iranian officials have detailed the ship’s missile and weapons capabilities. It is able to carry six to seven helicopters, as well as drones.
Iran and Venezuela – both of them under heavy sanctions from the United States — have developed closer ties over the last few years, with cooperation ranging from gasoline shipments to joint car and cement factory projects.
According to Politico, lawmakers privy to the most sensitive intelligence information were informed over the past few days that the U.S. believed the Iranian ships may be heading toward Venezuela.
The mere presence of Iranian warships in America’s backyard would represent a challenge to U.S. authority in the region — and would likely inflame the debate in Washington over President Joe Biden’s decision to re-open negotiations with Tehran, Politico said.
Successive governments in Tehran and Caracas have made a habit of defying the United States, with whom each country has a complex history. The Venezuelan government was one of the first to recognize the Islamic Republic after the 1979 overthrow of the shah, a U.S. ally in the Middle East.
Tehran regularly objects to the presence of U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf region, and it has previously announced its interest to send warships to America’s backyard.
The United States has imposed successively harsher rounds of sanctions that have undermined Venezuela’s economy.
As Venezuela’s oil refining sector has collapsed in recent years, the Islamic Republic has sent multiple fuel tankers to the country to help with crippling gas shortages. Iran has also established both a car assembly plant and a huge cement factory in Venezuela. In exchange, Venezuela’s government has helped Iran build relationships in Latin America.
U.S. officials have watched those ties blossom with varying levels of concern.
In December, the top commander of U.S. troops in Central and South America described Iran’s growing ties with Venezuela as “alarming”.
Last summer, U.S. authorities claimed to have seized four ships carrying cargo from Iran to Venezuela.
Iran, however, denied owning the crude shipments, saying the “rogue regime” in Washington has certainly stolen the cargo and is now openly bragging about the act of piracy. A few months later, UAE companied confirmed owning the cargoes.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said at the time that U.S. officials were acting like “the Pirates of the Caribbean,” referring to a popular American movie, adding that they were even openly boasting about their “booty.”
“No one civilized brags about stealing,” the Iranian official said.
Other Iranian officials said Washington’s claims were in fact an attempt to portray the seizure as a victory against Tehran after the U.S. repeatedly failed to stop Iranian tankers from delivering badly needed fuel to Venezuela.
Iran’s shipments to Venezuela have continued as the country has warned the U.S. of repercussions if its warships patrolling the Caribbean opt to harass Iranian vessels.