Two Iranian naval vessels are southbound off Africa’s east coast and appear to be headed for Venezuela, according to multiple news reports. The vessels – a frigate and a converted Aframax tanker, the “sea base” Makran – are likely to make a rare foray into the Atlantic as early as Thursday, two U.S. officials told Politico.
Based on surveillance, the voyage may be a weapons shipment. Satellite imagery provided by Maxar to USNI News appears to show seven boats stowed on the Makran’s weather deck shortly before the start of her voyage. According to analyst H.I. Sutton, the proportions of these boats appear to match the Iranian Peykaap-class fast attack craft, a 57-foot torpedo boat based on a North Korean design. Later versions of the Peykaap are fitted with twin launchers for short range anti-ship missiles.
Iran has not confirmed the two warships’ movements or their destination. On Monday, in response to questions about the Makran, a government spokesman emphasized the Iranian Navy’s right to sail wherever international law allows.
“Iran is always present in international waters and has this right under international law and can be present in international waters,” said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh at a press conference. “I warn that nobody should make a miscalculation. Those who live in glass houses must be cautious.”
Though U.S. defense officials have discussed the Makran with media on condition of anonymity, the Pentagon has so far declined to comment about the Iranian shipment on the record.
“I would point you to the Iranians to speak to their naval deployments and what it is they’re doing and what it is they’re trying to accomplish,” said Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby on Tuesday. “We obviously take our responsibilities in the Southern Command area of responsibility very seriously and [Southcom Commander Adm. Craig Faller] has at his disposal capabilities to help secure our interests and to meet our commitments in that part of the world.”
Earlier this year, Adm. Faller testified in a Senate hearing that Iran was increasing its military assistance to Venezuela and “possibly expanding the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] Quds Force presence in the region.”
The Iranian Navy experienced an unrelated setback Wednesday with the burning and sinking of the fleet auxiliary Kharg, the service’s largest vessel. The ship was engaged in a training exercise in the Gulf of Oman when she suffered an out-of-control engine room fire. Despite strenuous efforts to fight the blaze and save the ship, the Kharg slipped below at about 0830 hours Wednesday morning.
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