(CNN) – The Pentagon and US intelligence agencies are closely monitoring two ships of Iran which, according to Tehran, are destined for Venezuela.
At the Pentagon and other agencies, officials said that at this time the movement of the ships is not a concern, but they are being monitored and the intelligence community is working to assess what Iran’s intentions are. The two countries, both subject to harsh US sanctions, are allies and trading partners who have helped each other resist US measures.
While it is not yet clear whether the ships carry weapons, according to several U.S. officials, satellite images reveal that one of them carries the type of small fast attack boats that Iran has used to harass US naval ships in the Persian Gulf. And if Iranian ships gain the ability to access the Atlantic, analysts say it would be a significant step forward for the country’s navy, which has tried and failed to do so in the past.
Officials said the United States has been monitoring the ships for about two weeks. The ships have been off the east coast of Africa for the past few days. While they were initially expected to circle the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the continent between June 9-11, experts following their movement say they are now not expected to arrive until July.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, speaking generally about the possibility of any Iranian arms shipments to the Western Hemisphere, said it would be an “act of provocation” and a threat to US allies.
“While the Department of Defense will not comment on intelligence matters, we would like to point out that the handover of such weapons would be an act of provocation and a threat to our partners in this hemisphere. As such, we reserve the right to take appropriate measures – in agreement with our partners – to deter the delivery or transit of such weapons, “Kirby said in a statement to CNN.
On Wednesday, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported that the deputy head of Iran’s parliament’s foreign policy and national security committee had said that “the threat to Iranian ships is a violation of international law, and if it continues in this way, The United States Navy will certainly be in danger and we can threaten American ships in the waters of the region.
One of the Iranian ships, a floating base called Makran, was seen in late April in satellite images from Maxar Technologies in the port of Bandar Abbas with seven small fast attack ships on its deck. A smaller frigate accompanies the Makran. Politico was the first to report on America’s concern over ships.
The US concern is whether the Iranians transfer the attack ships to Venezuela. These fast and agile vessels are often used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Persian Gulf to invade commercial or military ships, including US Navy and Coast Guard ships operating there. They can be equipped with a variety of weapons ranging from small arms, anti-ship missiles, and torpedoes.
Officials emphasize that they are not sure if there are weapons on board any of the Iranian ships. “The concern would be if they were missile attack boats,” said a defense official. “That kind of weapon is something we don’t want near our shores.”
The ships sailed in a confused manner
There is some uncertainty about the course of the ships. A US official told CNN that in recent days they have sailed in a confusing manner that leaves observers wondering whether they will continue heading to the Atlantic.
As the United States tries to gauge Iran’s intentions, two sources say one theory is that Iran is trying to promote its ability to operate in the Atlantic: a statement of “hey, we’re here and here.” Both officials stressed that the warship and accompanying frigate are not much of a concern for now and there is hope that Iran will find a way to save face and send them home.
“This is not a Navy designed for blue water operations,” said one of the defense officials. The United States military generally refers to “blue water” navies as those that can easily operate in the open ocean at great distances from their home countries and support operations for extended periods.
For now, US officials are watching to see if any ports allow the ships for fuel and refueling before they attempt to cross the Atlantic. The United States believes they might have trouble making such a long trip.
The possible trip to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean would represent a step forward for the Iranian Navy, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, who oversees the Iranian military for the think tank of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Taleblu and others are watching the Makran closely because of Iran’s 2016 promise to develop naval capacity in the Atlantic Ocean. An attempt to sail ships around Africa that same year ended in failure, Taleblu said, when the ships had to make an emergency stop in Durban, South Africa, disrupting the effort.
“If this trip is successful … it does not mean that Iran will have a blue water navy immediately, but it could represent a significant evolution in Iran’s conventional Navy, which has atrophied compared to the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps,” He said. Iranian officials have touted the Makran as an expeditionary forward base, a platform from which they could launch suicide drones, helicopters, attack craft and the like, Taleblu said.
In a thinly veiled criticism, Kirby blamed Iran’s actions on the Trump administration and its campaign of maximum pressure for sanctions against Iranian officials. Instead, Kirby stressed diplomatic efforts, in coordination with US allies, to curb Iran’s nuclear activities.
“This is a situation that the current administration inherited, and like many things regarding Iran – including its rapidly expanding nuclear program without the limits imposed (by the Iran nuclear deal) – we are now working to prevent it through diplomacy. and other means, “he said.
CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.