The two countries – both facing stiff US sanctions – have developed closer ties in recent years, with cooperation ranging from gasoline shipments to joint car and cement plant projects.
Senior officials of the government of President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas were told that welcoming Iranian warships would be a mistake, according to a person familiar with the talks. But it’s not clear if Maduro heeded this warning: At one point on Thursday, U.S. military officials realized the ships had turned back, but on Friday morning they were still sailing south, one of the people said.
Lawmakers with knowledge of the most sensitive intelligence information have been told in recent days that the United States believes Iranian ships may be heading for Venezuela, but have warned that the destination may change, according to a person briefed at this subject.
The mere presence of Iranian warships in the US backyard would present a challenge to US authority in the region – and likely ignite debate in Washington over President Joe Biden’s decision to reopen negotiations with Tehran.
Iranian media have claimed that the 755-foot-long Makran, which was ordered this year, can serve as a platform for electronic warfare and special operations missions, and Iranian officials bragged about the ship’s missile and weapon capabilities. It is capable of carrying six to seven helicopters, as well as drones, they said.
A spokesperson for the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Iranian mission to the UN declined to comment. And White House and Pentagon spokespersons declined to comment.
The timing of Iran’s apparent western incursion is particularly inopportune for those hoping for a drop in tensions with Tehran.
Since taking office, Biden has considered joining the 2015 agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which his predecessor Donald Trump abandoned in 2018. These talks are underway in Vienna. The recent fighting between Israel and the militant group Hamas, long backed by Iran, has also fueled criticism from Republican lawmakers over the wisdom of re-entering the JCPOA.
Successive governments in Tehran and Caracas have made a habit of challenging the United States, with whom each country has a complex history. The Venezuelan government was one of the first to recognize the Islamic Republic after the overthrow in 1979 of the Shah, a United States ally in the Middle East.
Tehran regularly opposes the presence of US warships in the Persian Gulf region, and it has previously threatened to make a similar show of force in America’s backyard, but has never followed through. .
Maduro’s authoritarian regime has been shunned by many countries, including its Latin American neighbors. The United States has imposed increasingly severe rounds of sanctions that have punished an economy already ravaged by mismanagement, corruption and Covid. Iran is one of the few close allies of Venezuela.
As Venezuela’s oil refining industry has collapsed in recent years, the Islamic Republic has sent several tankers to the country to help deal with crippling gas shortages. In return, the Venezuelan government provided Tehran with much-needed money and helped it build relationships in Latin America.
US officials have seen those ties flourish with varying levels of concern.
In December, the commander-in-chief of US troops in Central and South America called Iran’s growing military presence in Venezuela “alarming”. In comments reported by the Wall Street Journal, Admiral Craig Faller, commander of United States Southern Command, said the presence of Quds Force personnel from the elite Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was particularly worrying.
The Trump administration designated the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization in 2019 and killed its Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani in an airstrike in Iraq last year.
Last summer, US authorities seized four ships carrying goods from Iran to Venezuela, as the Journal reported. At one point in their trip, these ships and five others were traveling with an Iranian navy intelligence vessel, U.S. officials told the newspaper. The ships did not reach Venezuela.