Meanwhile, Caracas is trying to take advantage of the situation to seek relief from U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, according to two other people familiar with the situation. U.S. intermediaries have told Venezuelan officials that letting ships dock there will make it less likely that the United States will grant the country sanctions relief.
However, Tehran is continuing the journey in hopes of putting pressure on Caracas to allow ships to dock, according to a defense official.
The US national security community is concerned about a possible arms transfer from Tehran to Caracas. The intelligence community has evidence that one of the ships, the Makran, is carrying rapid attack boats, presumably destined for sale in Venezuela, according to a second defense official and another person familiar with intelligence on the ships.
Satellite images of the ship in early May provided by Maxar Technologies showed seven of these ships placed on its deck, but it was not clear if those ships were still on board when the ship began its voyage.
Although there is no evidence that the Makran carries ballistic missiles, Last year, the Trump administration warned Tehran against delivering shipments of long-range missiles to the Nicolas Maduro regime and threatened to destroy the weapons if they found their way to Venezuela.
“The transfer of long-range missiles from Iran to Venezuela is not acceptable to the United States and will not be tolerated or permitted,” said Elliott Abrams, the former State Department special representative for the United States. ‘Iran and Venezuela at the time.
Representatives from the White House, State Department and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to requests for comment. However, last week Pentagon spokesman John Kirby warned that a new arms shipment “would be an act of provocation and a threat to our partners in this hemisphere.” He added that the United States reserves the right “to take appropriate measures – in concert with our partners – to deter the delivery or transit of such weapons.”
U.S. officials have been monitoring the progress of ships over the past two weeks from the Persian Gulf, along the east coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, and are now heading northwest across Atlantic. The Makran, a former oil tanker converted into a forward relay base, is accompanied by the Sahand, the most recent Iranian frigate.
As of Wednesday morning, the ships had made more than half of the trip between Iran and Venezuela and were slowly heading northwest more than 1,000 miles from Cape Town, South Africa, the second defense official said. , who was informed of their position. This is the first time that the Iranian navy has crossed the cape or crossed the Atlantic.
Lawmakers regularly receiving information on the matter have publicly pressured the Biden administration to work to deter the ships.
“It does not look like a delivery of oil or fuel,” the deputy chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) Wrote on Twitter. “This has all delivery marks on [sic] a sale of weapons (like rapid attack boats) to Venezuela coupled with the possibility of projecting a message of force to the Biden administration.
Farzin Nadimi of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which focuses on Iran’s naval strategy and defense industries, said his greatest concern over the possible delivery of rapid attack ships in Venezuela would involve training.
“If Iran helps Venezuela develop tactics similar to those practiced by the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] in the Persian Gulf region this could have, in my opinion, serious repercussions in the future, ”he said.
Iranian rapid attack boats recently invaded the US Coast Guard in the Persian Gulf, POLITICO reported. And in 2016, IRGC fast boats seized a US Navy boat in the Gulf, creating embarrassment for the US military.
Kirsten Fontenrose, a member of the Atlantic Council and former head of the National Security Council under the Trump administration which focused on the Middle East, said the expiration of the UN arms embargo against Iran means that this move could be followed by an increase in exports of military equipment.
“The threat is the precedent it sets, because the United Nations arms embargo is no longer imposed on Iran and they are free to import and export,” she said. “This could be the first of many transfers that we are seeing. This allows Iran to proliferate its model of what I call zero to heroes, where they arm failed governments or proxy groups and make them bigger than they are capable of being on their own. , and they are creating these affiliates around the world that are capable of threatening American interests.
Fontenrose added that the US transatlantic allies are unlikely to be particularly involved in US efforts to manage the growing challenge.
“We will have to deal with this on our own,” she said.
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.