US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers Thursday that he was concerned about the presence of two Iranian warships in the Atlantic Ocean believed to be shipping arms to Venezuela
‘I am absolutely concerned about the proliferation of weapons, any type of weapons, in our neighborhood,’ he told members of the committee.
Speaking before the Senate Armed Service Committee, Austin said that he shared senators’ worries about the ships, which are believed to be somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean after departing from the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas last month.
They came as the Biden administration has been pressuring Venezuela as well as Cuba to turn the ships away, with a senior administration official saying that the US views delivery of weapons in its hemisphere as a threat and that it will take ‘appropriate measures’ to prevent it.
It was the first public remarks he has made about the vessels, which US intelligence officials have been tracking since they embarked on an unprecedented mission around the east coast of Africa toward the Atlantic Ocean, Politico reported.
The US has also been reaching out to other countries in region, asking them to turn the ships away as well, the outlet reported.
‘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 told Politico. ‘We would reserve the right to take appropriate measures in coordination with our partners to deter the transit or delivery of such weapons.’
Iranian state TV released a short clip of the destroyer cruising through the Atlantic’s rough seas.
Iranian state TV also reported Thursday that the ships – the domestically built destroyer Sahand and support vessel Makran – had made it to the Atlantic Ocean in what Iran’s deputy army chief Admiral Habibollah Sayyari described as the Iranian navy’s longest and most challenging voyage yet.
Former oil tanker, Makran, is one of two ships currently sailing south along the east coast of Africa
‘The Navy is improving its seafaring capacity and proving its long-term durability in unfavorable seas and the Atlantic’s unfavorable weather conditions,’ Sayyari said, adding that the warships would not call at any country’s port during the mission.
The video likely was shot from the Makran, a converted commercial oil tanker with a mobile launch platform for helicopters.
Iran maintains close ties to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, (left) and has shipped gasoline and other products to the country amid a US sanctions campaign targeting fuel-starved Caracas
The ships were last seen at the port of Bandar Abbas on April 28, and they are believed to have left shortly after that.
The Kharg – a 679-foot vessel used to resupply other ships in the Iranian fleet at sea and conduct training exercises – met its violent end on June 2.
Iran’s recent naval woes: Islamic nation’s largest warship mysteriously burst into flames and sunk weeks after current flotilla was underway
Weeks after the latest Iranian flotilla set out for the Atlantic, the nation’s largest warship burst into flames and sunk near the port of Jask.
The Kharg, an Iranian navy support vessel and one of the force’s largest ships, sunk on June 2 near the port of Jask
All 400 crew and students on board the vessel – built in Britain in 1977 – were evacuated with only minor injuries, the Iranian military said, before firefighters tried to tackle the blaze.
- In April, Iran blamed Israel for a blast which damaged military vessel MV Saviz in the Red Sea – saying the ‘attack’ was carried out using underwater mines.
- In March an Israeli cargo vessel was hit by a missile in the Arabian Sea while sailing from Tanzania to India, with Israeli security services blaming Tehran.
- In February, the Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray car carrier was also hit by explosions while sailing off the coast of UAE.
The blasts form part of a years-long shadow war in Middle East waters which has also seen ships linked to Saudi Arabia and the UAE damaged – including a series in 2019 that almost drove the US and Iran to war.
Officials offered no cause for the blaze, but it came amid attacks on cargo ships and military vessels in recent months that Iran and Israel blamed on one-another – worsening already fraught relations between the old adversaries.
Intelligence has indicated that the Makran was at one point carrying Iranian fast-attack craft typically associated with its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The vessel was taking part in a training exercise with 400 people on board when the blaze broke out (pictured, crew scrambling on the deck of the ship as it burned)
The craft, believed to be part of the Peykaap family of boats, which were most recently seen swarming US Coast Guard and Navy ships in the Persian Gulf in April.
Satellite imagery from Maxar technologies showing at least seven such vessels on the ship’s deck.
It is not clear whether the craft were still aboard when the Makran left port.
The incidents only resulted in warning shots.
As of Wednesday the ships were believed to have made it halfway through their journey and were headed northwest across the Atlantic roughly 1,000 miles from Cape Town, South Africa, according to a US defense official.
A senior Biden administration official told Politico that the ships are believed to be carrying weapons as part of a deal struck between Iran and Venezuela last year, but did not specify what kind of armaments they could be carrying.
Iran maintains close ties to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and has shipped gasoline and other products to the country amid a US sanctions campaign targeting fuel-starved Caracas.
It would be the furthest Iranian naval vessels have travelled from the Persian Gulf.
Iran has also established both a car assembly plant and a huge cement factory in Venezuela.
Venezuela is believed to have paid Iran, under US sanctions of its own, for the shipments.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive geopolitical issues.
A top aide to Maduro has denied press reports that the ships will dock there.
‘Iran is always present in international waters and it has this right based on international law and it can be present in international waters,’ he said.
During a news conference May 31, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh declined to say where the Makran was going.
‘Those who sit in glass houses should be careful.’
‘No country is able to violate this right, and I warn that no one makes miscalculations.
If delivered successfully, however, it would be in clear defiance of the US.
It is not clear whether the weapons would be a direct threat to the US or how the Venezuela plans to use them.
‘This has all the markings of delivery on an arms sale (such as fast attack boats) to Venezuela coupled with the opportunity to project a message of strength to the Biden administration.’
‘This does not look like an oil or fuel cargo delivery,’ Tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio, who serves as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Last year reports emerged that the South American country was considering purchasing long-range missiles from the Islamic Republic, which the US considered a ‘red line,’ Politico reported.
It would not be the first time the US has had to contend with the potential for arms sales between Iran and Venezuela.
A warning from history: How the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon in 1962
The Cuban missile crisis brought the world as close as it has ever been to nuclear war in October 1962.
Nikita Khrushchev and John F Kennedy during a historic meeting a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out
If Russia chose, it could launch the missiles at the US before Washington had a chance to retaliate.
President John F Kennedy informed Americans during a television broadcast on October 22, 1962, that the Soviets had placed missiles on Cuba and that in retalation, the US would erect a blockade around the island to force Castro and Khrushchev to remove to missiles.
America had already deployed ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey – putting them within easy striking distance of Moscow.
On October 24, 1962, another key moment came when Soviet ships heading for Cuba neared the line of U.S. vessels enforcing the blockade. An attempt to breach the blockade would most likely have resulted in a military stand-off, but Soviet ships backed down.
He announced America would be willing to use military force if necessary to deter what was seen as a threat to national security – and the world waited with baited breathe.
A flashpoint which could have triggered all-out war was when an American reconnaissance plane was shot down on October 27, 1962.
A U.S. invasion forces readied itself for an invasion of Cuba but were eventually stood down. Kennedy (pictured) showed restraint by not attacking the Soviets or Cubans
Throughout the tense stand-off, Khrushchev and Kennedy were in contact to try to avoid any military escalation between the two superpowers. On October 26, 1962, Khrushchev sent a message to Kennedy in which he offered to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for a promise by U.S. leaders not to invade Cuba.
A U.S. invasion forces readied itself for an invasion of Cuba but were eventually stood down. The 35-year-old pilot of the downed plane, Major Rudolf Anderson, is considered the sole U.S. combat casualty of the Cuban missile crisis.
Secret negotiations between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and JFK and between his brother Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, and Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin led to a deal. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said after the incident it would be the ‘last Saturday he would ever see’ as tensions continued to escalate.
The following day, Khrushchev sent a letter proposing that the USSR would dismantle its missiles in Cuba if the Americans removed their missile installations in Turkey.
Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro enjoys a steak dinner while holding an impromptu press conference at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem during his visit to New York on September 23, 1960
The Soviets agreed to withdraw their missiles in return for America pledging not to invade Cuba. The US also secretly promised to remove obsolete missiles from Turkey. Both sides claimed victory as a way of putting a positive PR spin on the crisis.