US tracks Iranian ships that may be heading for the Atlantic and Venezuela
At the Pentagon and other agencies, officials have said that at present the passage of ships is not a problem, but that they are being watched and the intelligence community is working to assess. Iran’s intentions. The two countries – both subject to severe US sanctions – are allies and trading partners who have helped each other resist US measures.
While it is still not clear whether the ships are carrying weapons, according to several US officials, satellite imagery reveals that one of them is carrying the kind of small, fast attack boats that Iran has used. to harass US Navy ships in the Persian Gulf. And if Iranian ships were granted the ability to access the Atlantic, analysts say it would be a significant step forward for the country’s navy, which has tried and failed to do so in the past.
Officials said the United States had been monitoring the ships for about two weeks. The ships have been off the east coast of Africa for several days. While they were initially supposed to bypass the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the continent between June 9 and 11, experts following their movement say they should now arrive only in July.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, speaking generally of the possibility of any Iranian arms shipment to the Western Hemisphere, said it would be an “act of provocation” and a threat to allies of the states. United.
“Although the DoD does not comment on intelligence matters, we would like to note that the delivery of such weapons would be an act of provocation and a threat to our partners in this hemisphere. As such, we reserve the right to take appropriate action – together with our partners – to deter the delivery or transit of such weapons, ”Kirby said in a statement to CNN.
On Wednesday, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported that the deputy head of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee said that “the threat from Iranian ships is a violation of international law, and if so it continues, the United States Navy will certainly be in danger, and we can threaten American ships in the waters of the region. ”
Officials say they do not know if there are any weapons aboard any of the Iranian ships. “The problem would be that these are missile attack boats,” said a defense official. “This type of weapon is something we wouldn’t want near our shores.”
The ships sailed in a confusing way
There is some uncertainty as to the trajectory of the vessels. A US official told CNN that for the past few days they have been sailing in a confusing fashion, which has left observers wondering if they will continue on their way to the Atlantic.
As the United States tries to assess Iran’s intentions, two sources claim that one working theory is that Iran is trying to tout its ability to operate in the Atlantic – a “hey, we are here and present ”. The two officials stressed that the warship and accompanying frigate are not of great concern at the moment and there is hope that Iran will find a face-saving way to return them and send them home.
“This is not a navy designed for blue water operations,” said one of the defense officials. The US military generally refers to “blue water” navies as those that can easily operate on the high seas at great distances from their home countries and support operations for long periods of time.
For now, US officials are monitoring to see if any ports allow ships to enter for fuel and resupply before they attempt to cross the Atlantic. The United States thinks they might have a hard time making such a long trip.
The potential trip to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean would mark a step forward for the Iranian navy, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, who monitors the Iranian military for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. Taleblu and others are keeping a close eye on the Makran due to a promise made by Iran in 2016 to develop a naval capability in the Atlantic Ocean. An attempt to sail ships around Africa that same year ended in failure, Taleblu said, when the ships had to make an emergency stopover in Durban, South Africa, ending the ‘effort.
“If this trip is successful (…) it does not mean that Iran will have a blue water navy right away, but it could represent a significant evolution of the Iranian conventional navy, which has atrophied compared to to the elite corps of Revolutionary Guards, ”he said. . Iranian officials have touted the Makran as a forward expeditionary base, a platform from which they could launch suicide drones, helicopters, attack craft and the like, Taleblu said.
In a thinly veiled criticism, Kirby blamed Iran’s actions on the Trump administration and its campaign of maximum pressure of sanctions against Iranian officials. Instead, Kirby pointed to diplomatic efforts, in coordination with U.S. allies, to curb Iran’s nuclear activities.
“This is a situation that the current administration has inherited, and like many things with regard to Iran – including its rapidly expanding nuclear program without the limits imposed by the [Iran nuclear deal] – we are now working to prevent through diplomacy and other means, “he said.
CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.