Global Affairs

Defense secretary ‘concerned’ about Iranian ships transferring arms to Venezuela

Austin said he shares Blumenthal’s concerns, adding that “I am absolutely concerned about the proliferation of weapons, any type of weapons, in our neighborhood.”

Austin declined to answer Blumenthal’s questions about what weapons are on board, saying that he would provide information in a closed session. He added that he had not spoken to any other leaders from countries in the region about the ships’ movements.

POLITICO first reported last week that U.S. officials have been monitoring two Iranian navy ships, the forward staging ship Makran and the frigate Sahand, that sailed down the east coast of Africa around the Cape of Good Hope and are now heading northwest across the Atlantic. The intelligence community has evidence that the Makran is carrying fast-attack boats, likely intended for sale to Venezuela, POLITICO reported Wednesday.

The Biden administration has been urging Venezuela and Cuba through diplomatic channels to turn away the ships, while vowing that the U.S. will take “appropriate measures” to deter what it sees as a “threat.”

“The delivery of such weapons would be a provocative act and understood as a threat to our partners in the Western Hemisphere,” a senior administration official said in a statement to POLITICO. “We would reserve the right to take appropriate measures in coordination with our partners to deter the transit or delivery of such weapons.”

Those efforts would appear to have the backing of top lawmakers, too.

“The bottom line is, either [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro should unconditionally turn them around, or we should force them to turn around,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a brief interview.

Rubio said he has learned more about the ships’ movements in classified settings, but the panel’s chair, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), told POLITICO on Thursday that he has not yet been briefed about the situation. While there haven’t been any in-person briefings, lawmakers and aides said, the Biden administration has been keeping relevant members of Congress apprised of the situation as it unfolds.

Lawmakers speculated that Iran might be trying to test the nascent Biden administration, but it comes as Washington and Tehran are holding indirect talks in Vienna centered on resurrecting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

“The precedent of Iran being allowed to send arms to an adversary in this hemisphere is pretty alarming,” Blumenthal said in an interview after questioning Austin.

“And this may be a first testing blow by Iran, as to whether they can get away with it and make mischief,” he added.

Austin isn’t the only Western Hemisphere defense official to raise alarm bells about the ships. Capt. Gerry Gouveia, the Guynaian national security adviser, told POLITICO that the vessels are a major concern. Guyana borders Venezuela to the east, and Venezuela claims much of its land and maritime territory. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil is operating a joint venture to drill for oil in the Stabroek Block, which is in Guyana’s waters. On Wednesday it announced that it has made a new discovery there, as Reuters reported. The arrival of Iranian fast attack boats in the region could threaten the stability that such projects require, according to Gouveia.

“[I]f indeed these are shipments of sophisticated materiel including fast boats it must be of grave concern to all of us in this hemisphere, especially Venezuela’s neighbors including Guyana to which Venezuela maintains a claim to five-eights of our territory and our maritime space,” he wrote in a message to POLITICO.

“The reported acquisition of this weaponry, as revealed by US intelligence sources, would certainly serve as a threat to hemispheric peace and security. Media reports say that the shipments include fast-attack boats,” Gouveia added. “Given the Iranian swarm tactics with these boats that threaten shipping in the Gulf, there is a concern for our off-shore Oil & Gas operations and for protecting the sovereignty of our [exclusive economic zone].”

A defense official said the Pentagon is not currently drawing up plans to monitor the ships more closely using air or naval assets in the region, or to conduct an intercept in international waters.

But the U.S. military has planned for such a contingency before, according to one former senior defense official. Last summer, amid reports that Venezuela was considering purchasing long-range missiles from Iran, DoD officials assessed that a weapons transfer would be a “red line,” the person said.

“We had options drawn up for such a contingency — from very visible to clandestine,” the person added. “Ultimately we never had to consider them.”

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