Iranian warships sailing into the Atlantic Ocean would present a major test for the Biden administration, which has been trying to re-engage Tehran in negotiations over its nuclear program. Iran has previously threatened to send warships into the Atlantic, but never followed through, settling for an emergency port call in South Africa in 2016.
Tehran’s intent in sending the ships toward the Atlantic is not clear. But a spokesperson for the National Security Council noted that Venezuela purchased weapons from Iran over a year ago, and warned that any new delivery of weapons “would be a provocative act and a threat to our partners in this hemisphere.”
“We would reserve the right to take appropriate measures — in concert with our partners — to deter the delivery or transit of such weapons,” the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.
The Iranian ships include a frigate and the Makran, a former oil tanker that was converted to a floating forward staging base, according to the officials.
Tehran and Caracas have previously worked together to defy the United States and to further both governments’ goals. Iran has in the past sent tankers to dock in Venezuela and deliver oil, in defiance of U.S. sanctions.
“Tehran is intent on deepening its footprint in Latin America and in the Western Hemisphere more broadly. Venezuela offers Tehran a forward operating base in the region,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, whose scholars often advocate for a tough U.S. policy aimed at undermining Iran’s Islamist regime. Taleblu noted that the Makran’s movement, in particular, has raised eyebrows.
Top officials in Tehran have implicitly confirmed the ships’ movement. In response to POLITICO’s reporting, the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Monday warned U.S. officials to avoid miscalculations about the country’s warships sailing in international waters.
“Iran is always present in international waters and has this right under international law and can be present in international waters,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh told reporters in Tehran.
“No country can violate this right,” he said. “Those who have sit in glass houses should be careful.”
Over the past few days, the ships have alternatively stopped and indicated they might turn around, the U.S. officials said. But since Friday they have made significant progress south along the coast.
The Biden administration updated lawmakers on the ships’ progress on Tuesday, one of the people said.
After POLITICO first reported on the ships’ movements, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, suggested that the U.S. should prevent the ships from reaching Venezuela.
“There are only two reasons why an Iranian warship would travel half a world away to make a port call in Venezuela,” Rubio wrote on Twitter. “To deliver military cargo they have sold them; to test the U.S. by conducting joint exercises with them. We should allow neither to happen.”
However, a U.S. defense official said there are currently no plans to send U.S. Navy ships to monitor or deter the Iranian task force. U.S. Southern Command typically operates two littoral combat ships in the South and Central America region.
The ships’ cargo is also unknown. However, satellite photos of the Makran taken by Maxar Technologies in April and May and shared with POLITICO show the vessel leaving a port in Iran in April with seven high-speed fast attack craft on its deck. The images were first reported by USNI News. Another picture taken in May shows the Makran north of Larak Island in the Strait of Hormuz with the boats still onboard.
The boats seen in the images are consistent with the fast attack craft operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, which frequently patrol the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. This type of boat has been used in recent months to harass U.S. ships operating in international waters.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby declined to comment on the ships’ movement during a press briefing on Tuesday.
“I’m not going to speculate about what the Iranian Navy might or might not do,” Kirby said. However, he noted that Adm. Craig Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, “has at his disposal capabilities to help secure our interest and to meet our commitments in that part of the world.”
Taleblu noted that Iran’s ship movements have created geopolitical challenges in the past, and urged the Biden administration to watch the latest development closely.
“Sanctioned Iranian and Venezuelan actors have reportedly [bartered] jet fuel for gasoline in the past and may be using the tanker trade or port calls for other purposes,” he wrote in an email. “As the Biden team looks to unwind sanctions on Iran, discerning where the U.S. is on such activity is getting harder, and that’s a big problem.”
Also Wednesday, a major Iranian Navy vessel, the Kharg, sank after catching fire, while a huge blaze broke out at an oil refinery that serves the Iranian capital.
While the exact cause of the fires was not yet clear, various Iranian infrastructure and military assets have been damaged by explosions and fires in the past that analysts have suspected is the work of Israel, which views Iran as a major adversary and is trying to damage its nuclear program.
The Kharg went down in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian media quoted a Navy spokesperson as saying there was a 20-hour battle to bring the blaze under control, but to no avail.
The fire began in the vessel’s engine room, according to Iran’s semi-official Fars News agency, which quoted the unnamed spokesperson. The media outlet reported that the ship had been in service for 40 years and was used for both logistical and training purposes.
The fire at the oil refinery struck the state-owned Tondgooyan Petrochemical Co. to the south of Tehran, The Associated Press reported, sending up huge black plumes of smoke.
Nahal Toosi and Betsy Woodruff Swan contributed to this report.