Iranian warships have entered the Atlantic Ocean for the first time ever, raising alarms by United States officials and Washington hawks.
The Iranian ships, the frigate Sahand and the base ship Makran, reached the south Atlantic on Thursday, likely en route to Venezuela, which has increasingly become an economic and military partner of Tehran. Iran has friendly relations with Cuba, where the ships could make a port call.
"We believe that it is the absolute right of the Navy to have a presence in international waters," Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said, according to state television, which broadcast a video showing the Sahand sailing through the choppy winter waters of the south Atlantic.
The two ships left the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on 10 May and traveled 6,000 nautical miles through the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and around Africa to reach the Atlantic in what state television described as Iran’s longest maritime mission.
The 310-foot Sahand is an Iranian-made frigate. The 755-foot Makran is a converted oil tanker that includes a helicopter pad and can serve as a base for small boats. Iran claims it has electronic warfare, missiles and weapons capabilities, as well as medical facilities.
Analysts have assessed that the ships are likely carrying military equipment, possibly naval swiftboats or missiles, bound for Venezuela. There appears to be nothing in international law that bars such conventional weapons transfers between Iran and Venezuela, nor any prohibition on Iranian warships traversing international waters.
But the subject of the ships’ passage has been raised by well-funded Washington pressure groups and their allied lawmakers. The administration of President Joe Biden has urged both Cuba and Venezuela to turn the ships away should they arrive in the Caribbean. Last year, the US seized Iranian fuel aboard four tankers bound for Venezuela.
During a hearing on Thursday with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin of the Senate Armed Services committee, US Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, warned that allowing the ships to dock would be a potentially perilous milestone. He said he was informed that the ships contained weapons to be provided to Venezuela as part of a deal brokered a year ago between Tehran and Caracas.
“The precedent of allowing Iran to provide weapons to the region causes me great concern,” he said.
Mr Austin declined to publicly reveal what if any intelligence the US has gathered about the nature of the weapons or cargo aboard the ship.
"I am absolutely concerned about the proliferation of weapons, any type of weapons, in our neighborhood," Mr Austin said. "And so, I share your concern."
The ships’ passage comes at a sensitive time when Iran, the U.S. and other world powers are negotiating a possible return to a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear pursuits which was forged in 2015 but abandoned by former administration of Donald Trump.
US officials have said they are closely monitoring the passage of the ships while at the same time continuing to negotiate the nuclear deal. A United Nations prohibition on sales and export of Iranian weapons expired in October despite the vehement opposition of the former administration of Donald Trump.
"Regardless of what these ships carry, there is no ban on the purchase and sale of weapons by Iran,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabei said this week in comments reported by state media. “America did its best to maintain the sanctions last year, but failed miserably.”
But a vast array of sanctions remain on Iran, Venezuela and Cuba, setting the stage for a possible confrontation between American and Iranian ships at sea.
“We’re prepared to leverage our applicable authorities, including sanctions, against any actor that enables Iran’s on-going provision of weapons to violent partners and to proxies,” US State Department Ned Price said on Thursday.
“We will continue to apply pressure on Iran if it attempts to transfer any weapons to violent partners and proxies,” he said. “If this is an effort to transfer weapons or otherwise to violate its international obligations, we would be prepared to respond.”