U.S. officials believe the warships may be headed for Venezuela.
The two Iranian Navy ships steaming south along the east coast of Africa are expected to round the Cape of Good Hope and reach the Atlantic Ocean as early as Thursday, according to two U.S. officials with direct knowledge.
National security officials tracking the ships do not know the ships’ final destination, but believe they may be ultimately bound for Venezuela, POLITICO first reported on Saturday. The ships were still moving south on Wednesday, and at their current pace they are on track to turn west around the Cape on Thursday, said the people, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive operations.
“Our belief that it’s heading toward Venezuela has not changed,” one of the people said.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council could not be immediately reached for comment.
Iranian warships sailing into the Atlantic Ocean would present a major test for the Biden administration, which has been trying to re-engage Tehran in negotiations over its nuclear program. Iran has previously threatened to send warships into the Atlantic, but never followed through, settling for an emergency port call in South Africa in 2016.
The Iranian ships include a frigate and the Makran, a former oil tanker that was converted to a floating forward staging base, according to the officials.
Tehran and Caracas have previously worked together to defy the United States and to further both governments’ goals. Iran has in the past sent tankers to dock in Venezuela and deliver oil, in defiance of U.S. sanctions.
“Tehran is intent on deepening its footprint in Latin America and in the Western Hemisphere more broadly. Venezuela offers Tehran a forward operating base in the region,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, whose scholars often advocate for a tough U.S. policy aimed at undermining Iran’s Islamist regime. Taleblu noted that the Makran’s movement, in particular, has raised eyebrows.
Top officials in Tehran have implicitly confirmed the ships’ movement. In response to POLITICO’s reporting, the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Monday warned U.S. officials to avoid miscalculations about the country’s warships sailing in international waters.
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