The US is closely tracking an Iranian navy transport ship headed for the Caribbean — possibly Venezuela — and is prepared to take action against the delivery of any weapons which may be on board, administration officials said on Friday.
The Biden administration reserves the right to take measures, in coordination with allies in the region, to deter the transit or delivery of weapons, one of the officials said. A State Department official added that the US is prepared to use sanctions against any actor that enables Iran’s provision of weapons to violent partners and proxies.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a Senate committee on Thursday that he is “absolutely concerned about the proliferation of weapons in the Western Hemisphere. Austin was responding to Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal’s comments that the Iranian ship is carrying missiles and fast-attack boats to Venezuela.
“Allowing this ship to dock seems significant to me on many different levels,” the Connecticut lawmaker said. “It would be the first time that Iranian vessels have made such a transit and the precedent of allowing Iran to provide weapons to the region causes me grave concern.”
When pressed by Blumenthal, Austin said he’d prefer to discuss questions about the ship’s cargo in a closed session. Venezuelan officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The tensions come at a delicate moment in global geopolitics as world powers and Iran are trying to revive their landmark nuclear accord ahead of elections in Iran. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week that Iran is rapidly developing its nuclear program, arguing that returning to the 2015 deal that former President Donald Trump quit is a necessary first step to prevent Tehran from acquiring a bomb.
“Iranian weapons have been going to Venezuela for a very long time and so have Russian weapons — but there is a difference in the kinds of weapons that are going there and the missiles are a key concern,” said Elliott Abrams, Trump’s former special envoy to Venezuela who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The timing is quite striking. The Iranians knew it would be arriving around the Vienna talks and I think it’s a gesture of contempt for the US to be doing this right now.”
Biden officials say that a sale of Iranian weapons happened a year ago, during the Trump presidency, and reflect Iran’s efforts to defy the former administration’s “maximum pressure posture”. Abrams called that a “petty comment”, noting that the military relationship between Caracas and Tehran pre-dates the maximum pressure campaign.
Politico reported earlier that the Biden administration is privately urging the Venezuelan and Cuban governments to turn away two Iranian naval ships. Venezuela’s government is trying to leverage the situation to gain relief from US sanctions, Politico said, citing people it didn’t identify.
In a Bloomberg Opinion column on Friday, retired US Navy Admiral James Stavridis said the ship — the Markan — appears to be transporting speedboats of the Iranian Peykaap class, which are typically operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Persian Gulf. Nearly 60 feet (18.3 meters) in length, they can carry two lethal anti-ship missiles that have a range of close to 20 miles in surface-to-surface mode, as well as a pair of torpedoes.
“If the US was willing to seize Iranian oil shipments for violating sanctions last year,” he said, “it should be prepared to take direct action to stop these small but lethal machines of war from being delivered to a corrupt and dangerous regime in Caracas.”