US monitors Iranian warships that may be heading for Venezuela
The two countries – both facing stiff US sanctions – have developed closer ties in recent years, with cooperation ranging from gasoline shipments to joint car and cement projects.
Senior officials of the government of President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas were told that welcoming Iranian warships would be a mistake, according to a person familiar with the talks. But it’s not clear if Maduro heeded this warning: At one point on Thursday, U.S. military officials realized the ships had turned back, but on Friday morning they were still smoking south, one of the people said.
Lawmakers familiar with the most sensitive intelligence information have been told in recent days that the United States believes Iranian ships may be heading for Venezuela, but have warned the destination may change, according to a person briefed on the question.
The mere presence of Iranian warships in the US backyard would challenge US authority in the region – and likely ignite debate in Washington over President Joe Biden’s decision to reopen negotiations with Tehran .
Iranian media claimed that Makran 755 feet long, which went into service this year, can serve as a platform for electronic warfare and special operations missions, and Iranian officials bragged about the ship’s missile and weapon capabilities. It is capable of carrying six to seven helicopters, as well as drones, they said.
A spokesperson for the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Iranian mission to the UN declined to comment. And White House and Pentagon spokespersons declined to comment.
The timing of Iran’s apparent western incursion is particularly inopportune for those hoping for easing tensions with Tehran.
Since taking office, Biden has considered joining the 2015 agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which his predecessor Donald Trump abandoned in 2018. These talks continue in Vienna. The recent fighting between Israel and the militant group Hamas, long backed by Iran, has also fueled criticism from Republican lawmakers over the wisdom of re-entering the JCPOA.
Successive governments in Tehran and Caracas have made a habit of challenging the United States, with which each country has a complex history. The Venezuelan government was one of the first to recognize the Islamic Republic after the overthrow in 1979 of the Shah, an American ally in the Middle East.
Tehran regularly opposes the presence of US warships in the Persian Gulf region and has previously threatened to make a similar show of force in the US backyard, but has never followed through.
Maduro’s authoritarian rule has been shunned by many countries, including its Latin American neighbors. The United States has successively imposed rounds of tougher sanctions that have punished an economy already ravaged by mismanagement, corruption and Covid. Iran is one of the few close allies of Venezuela.
As Venezuela’s oil refining industry has collapsed in recent years, the Islamic Republic has sent several tankers to the country to help deal with crippling gas shortages. In return, the Venezuelan government provided Tehran with much-needed liquidity and helped it build relationships in Latin America.
US officials have seen these links flourish with varying levels of concern.
In December, the commander-in-chief of US troops in Central and South America called Iran’s growing military presence in Venezuela “alarming.” In the comments reported by the Wall Street JournalAdmiral Craig Faller, the commander of the US Southern Command, said the presence of members of the Quds force from the elite Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is of particular concern.
The Trump administration designated the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization in 2019 and killed its Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani last year in an airstrike in Iraq.
Last summer, US authorities seized four ships carrying goods from Iran to Venezuela, as reported by the Journal. At one point in their journey, these ships and five others were traveling with an Iranian naval intelligence vessel, US officials told the newspaper. The ships did not reach Venezuela.