Iranian Warships Possibly on Way to Venezuela
A clash with US Navy may occur if Tehran tries to subvert American sanctions on the Islamic Republic and its far-left ally
Two warships flying Iranian colors are sailing south along the east coast of Africa and may be headed to Venezuela, Politico reported on Saturday.
The US national security apparatus is monitoring the ships’ progress. The vessels, a frigate and the Makran forward staging base, are believed to be headed toward the Islamic Republic’s South American ally, but their destination, cargo and goal are unclear.
If the ships are indeed headed for South America, Tehran has chosen a puzzling moment in which to send military vessels to the US’s backyard. Negotiations on the return of both Iran and the US to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, have been ongoing in Vienna and the sides have expressed cautious optimism. If success is achieved, the White House will lift crippling economic sanctions placed on Iran.
The Makran is a repurposed oil tanker, and it is important to note that Iran has sent oil shipments to its ally in the past, as recently as April.
Dr. Nancy Gallagher, director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, told The Media Line, “Iran has sent oil to Venezuela before because Iran does not think that the US has the right to use sanctions to stop Iranian oil sales.”
Gallagher adds that “the Iranians may also be trying to send the message that if the US has the right to have its warships in international waters near Iran (which it does under international law), then Iran has the same right to have its naval ships in international waters in the Western Hemisphere.”
The US has navy ships present in the Persian Gulf.
Col. (res.) Eldad Shavit, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and an expert on US policy in the Middle East, also notes that Iranian ships heading toward Venezuela is nothing new. “The Iranians have been in contact with Venezuela, trying to help it,” he told The Media Line.
Venezuela and Iran have drawn close in recent years as both countries ail under US sanctions. Although the South American country has the world’s largest known oil reserves and was formerly one of the world’s leading exporters of oil, it is suffering from a severe fuel shortage. The Iranian oil shipments were intended to ease this difficulty.
Politico reported that the Venezuelan government has been counseled not to welcome the ships, but its stance is as of yet unclear.
Both experts agree that the Iranian presence close to the US is not a threat to American national security. Shavit, however, notes that if Iran is attempting to sidestep US sanctions by sending these ships to South America, a response is likely.
“So long as the sanctions are in place … the US will act against [an attempt to undermine them],” he said; the Biden administration is committed to upholding the sanctions while they remain in force. “I think it will serve the negotiations in Vienna by showing that the White House is standing its ground,” Shavit adds.
As things stand, this development should have no influence on the negotiations in Vienna, he believes. However, if the US is forced to stop the ships and the two countries’ naval forces clash, it will likely hinder the negotiations. Still, with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the details regarding the ships, their destination and their cargo – it is hard at present to weigh the possible outcomes.
Gallagher says, “This should have zero impact on the negotiations in Vienna, other than to remind people that keeping sanctions in place makes Iran more likely to sell its oil at below-market rates to countries like Venezuela and China rather than selling it at market rates to countries that are US allies, like Japan.”
She advises against an American response to the ships sailing through international waters. “Since freedom of navigation in international waters is a very important principle for the US and its allies, I would not recommend that the White House react in any way that suggests we do not always honor that principle,” Gallagher says.
The JCPOA was negotiated in 2015 under then-President Barack Obama. The agreement between the US, European allies, China, Russia and Iran placed limits and supervision on the Islamist regime’s nuclear program, and in return, lifted economic sanctions.
President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement in 2018, after criticizing it harshly, and closely following an Israeli operation that exposed a huge amount of classified Iranian documents which, Israel said, included proof that Iran was pursuing nuclear armament, despite its repeated statements to the contrary.