Two Iranian naval ships that entered the Atlantic earlier this month are traveling north up the west coast of Africa, a top admiral confirmed to VOA. The United States is monitoring the ships’ movements from their current location off Senegal amid concerns Iran could be preparing for an arms transfer in the Western Hemisphere.
“We’re aware that there are two Iranian naval vessels transiting north in the Atlantic,” U.S. Southern Command chief Adm. Craig Faller told VOA in an exclusive interview late Thursday at the close of the 2021 Central American Security Conference in Panama.
Iran’s state TV reported on June 10 that the Sahand, an Iranian warship, and the intelligence-gathering vessel Makran had rounded South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and entered the Atlantic Ocean. The report did not identify the ships’ final destination.
U.S. officials initially suggested that the ships may be heading for Venezuela, which purchased weapons from Iran over a year ago. Other reports say the ships could be bound for the Mediterranean Sea to meet up with allies Syria or Russia, but a senior U.S. defense official told VOA Friday that was “purely speculation” at this point.
The ships are currently “outside Senegal,” the official added, a geographic inflection point that makes it unclear whether the ships will turn west toward Venezuela or continue up Africa’s northwestern coast.
Faller, who oversees U.S. military operations across Latin America, said the U.S. is using intelligence assets to watch Iran’s “problematic” movements across the globe, noting he shares U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s concerns about the possibility of Iran providing weapons to Latin America.
“We’ve seen what Iran has done in its near abroad with exporting terrorism into Yemen and elsewhere, so when you think about where that might end up beyond the places it’s already present, it’s a concern,” said Faller. He added that the U.S. has “seen Iran increase their level of activity” in the Western Hemisphere.
Maxar Technologies’ satellite imagery of the Makran from early May showed what looked like at least seven Iranian fast-attack boats on its deck.
The U.S. admiral declined to comment specifically on how fast-attack boat capabilities could hinder U.S. efforts in Latin America should the ships steer toward his area of responsibility.
“Our job is to monitor, and watch and be ready,” Faller said. “We’re always ready.”
Politico was first to report the ships’ movements toward the Atlantic Ocean. They are the first Iranian naval vessels to round the Cape of Good Hope and enter the Atlantic Ocean.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has called on the U.S. to “forcefully” confront the vessels should they approach Venezuela.
However, unlike commercial ships which can legally be boarded to seize illicit cargo, military ships are granted sovereign immunity in international waters by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
It is unclear what the U.S. would do should the vessels cross into the Western Hemisphere, but State Department spokesman Ned Price said earlier this month the U.S. was prepared to leverage “applicable authorities, including sanctions, against any actor that enables Iran’s ongoing provision of weapons.”
Ryan Berg, an expert on Latin America and authoritarian regimes with the Center of Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. needs to pay “far closer attention to how authoritarian regimes prop up one another” to flout sanctions and other architectures set up to deter bad behaviors.
“This may be a recurring challenge and a recurring threat now that Iran has proven that it has open water naval capabilities, and it's willing to shore up the Venezuelan regime in the form of weapons and fast attack boats,” Berg said in an interview.