US officials this week have been calling on Iran to immediately halt and turn around two of its warships believed bound for Venezuela. A trade and defense relationship between Tehran and Caracas has grown especially under the prior Trump administration sanctions on both countries. This has in the past year included Iranian fuel tankers engaged in sanctions-busting by delivering badly needed gasoline to Venezuela (Venezuela has abundant crude but derelict refineries for meeting domestic fuel needs).
Two Iranian warships, the Sahand and Makran recently rounded the tip of Africa for the first time, which is considered the farthest west that Iranian warships have ever gone. For the past week the US Navy is said to be tracking their movements, but on Thursday Iranian state media released footage of the ships as they traverse the Atlantic Ocean, in a direct "message" to Washington that they remain undeterred.
Iranian media has released footage claiming to show the frigate Sahand in the Atlantic Ocean, one of the two warships the U.S. believes may be heading to Venezuela https://t.co/bozL5u6pkb pic.twitter.com/zMyfPKAl8g— Dave Brown (@dave_brown24) June 10, 2021
Iran's media described the video as confirming "the first presence of the homegrown 'Sahand' destroyer in the Atlantic Ocean."
According to a report from Politico, the pair of ships are carrying weapons to Venezuela - a hugely provocative move which the report suggests Maduro plans to use as a bargaining chip to gain sanctions relief. The report says that Biden officials are warning that the US will take "appropriate measures" to deter the "threat" to US allies in the Western Hemisphere.
"The delivery of such weapons would be a provocative act and understood as a threat to our partners in the Western Hemisphere," an unnamed US 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."
Here's more from this week's Politico report regarding the Iran-Venezuela alleged delivery in progress based on a deal believed to have been hatched during the Trump administration:
The official did not specify the types of weapons involved, but last summer there were reports that Venezuela was considering purchasing missiles from Iran, including long-range ones, and aides to Trump repeatedly warned Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro against such a move.
The intelligence community, meanwhile, has evidence that one of the ships, the Makran, is carrying fast-attack boats, likely intended for sale to Venezuela, according to a defense official and another person familiar with the intelligence.
Below: Sahand and Makran, which are now believed to be in the Atlantic Ocean:
Yet the fact remains that the ships are in international waters - not to mention that the US sails warships, carriers, and submarines near Iran's coast on a routine basis.
But in Washington's eyes, Venezuela's military being in possession of medium or long-range Iranian missiles would certainly constitute a "red line".
"A significant demonstration of Iran's naval capability and... a new foothold in America's near abroad" is a rather alarmist way to frame Iran sending two boats on a route that humans have been able to sail since, like, Magellan https://t.co/DJTeQKeqGd— Gregg Carlstrom (@glcarlstrom) June 5, 2021
Likely an occasional fuel shipment or two will make it past US Navy ships in the Caribbean, but the scenario of missile-transporting Iranian warships being allowed to pass seems highly unlikely. It's increasingly appearing that there will be a showdown in the Caribbean, also as the US is reportedly putting Cuba on notice that it must not cooperate with the Iranian vessels' passage through its territorial waters.