The United States is closely monitoring the movement of an Iranian ship headed for the Caribbean, possibly Venezuela, as it fears it may possibly be carrying weapons. Authorities said that if it turns out to be true the United States will take all possible actions against the delivery of any weapons which may be on board.
The concerns rise from a troubling report that emerged last summer wherein it was being speculated that Venezuela was possibly considering entering a new arms deal with Iran, one that could include long-range missiles capable of reaching the United States. However, Venezuela rubbished those reports that time.
What's Inside the Ship?
After raising concerns last summer, US officials are again worried that two Iranian Navy ships moving across the Atlantic might be carrying arms to Venezuela that was allegedly eyeing a year ago. Anticipating that this may further escalate tensions, the Biden administration has warned Caracas to reject the delivery, saying ominously that the US will take "appropriate measures" if required.
"I am absolutely concerned about the proliferation of weapons, any type of weapons, in our neighborhood," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday in response to lawmakers' questions about the ships, becoming the first Biden Cabinet member to speak publicly on the issue.
"Allowing this ship to dock seems significant to me on many different levels," Austin said, adding, "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."
However, it is still not clear what the two Iranian ships — the Makran and the Sahand are carrying. Going by some of the photographic evidence obtained, the ships may contain fast-attack boats, which can be armed and which Tehran has frequently used to harass US ships in the Persian Gulf.
That said, much of the cargo is covered up, leaving officials and analysts to speculate. Venezuela is yet to comment on the movements of the ships or what the cargo contains.
Last summer, when reports emerged that Venezuela was considering entering a new arms deal with Iran, which would include long-range missiles, Venezuelan ruler Nicolas Maduro had joked that such a purchase was a "good idea."
That said, it is still unclear how the Biden administration plans to intervene and stop the ships beyond pursuing quiet diplomacy in Latin America and issuing public statements. The movement of the ships is at the time a ploy by Iran and Venezuela to test the Biden administration.
"They are testing the new administration to see what it does," said Eddy Acevedo, a former Republican congressional aide who specialized in Latin American and Middle Eastern issues. "Iran is looking for leverage for nuclear talks, and the Venezuelan regime is trying to push the US into providing sanctions relief ahead of talks with the Venezuelan opposition." The Biden administration has already signaled at lifting some of the sanctions on both Iran and Venezuela through bilateral talks.
The tensions come at a time when 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.
According to Politico, the Biden administration is separately urging the Venezuelan and Cuban governments to turn away the two Iranian naval ships. Biden officials claim that Iran sold weapons to Venezuela a year ago, during the Trump presidency, and reflect the country's efforts to defy the former administration's "maximum pressure" posture.
The equation between Iran and Venezuela is simple. For Venezuela, under Maduro has almost collapsed and Iran is a helpful resource for everything from gasoline to groceries, as well as advice on how to dodge US sanctions.
On the other hand, for Iran, which has been sharing a strained relationship with the United States for more than 40 years now, the Venezuela connection is another way to defy Washington in its own hemisphere while promoting its Shia Islamist ideology beyond the Middle East. US officials in recent years have grown increasingly concerned about influence of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Tehran-backed Shia Muslim militia Hezbollah on Venezuela.