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Two Iranian warships round tip of Africa for first time, sparking US concern

As Makran and Sahand appear to head for the Atlantic, some American officials worry they are carrying weapons for Venezuela; others expect them to turn back soon

This photo released on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021 by the Iranian Army, shows Iran-made warship Makran (Iranian Army via AP)
This photo released on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021 by the Iranian Army, shows Iran-made warship Makran (Iranian Army via AP)

The US is tracking two Iranian Navy ships that have rounded the southern tip of Africa and are headed to the Atlantic Ocean, the farthest west that Iranian navy ships have gone, according to multiple reports Friday.

According to reports in CNN, Politico and Fox News, US officials have been following the movements of the Makran and the Sahand for the past two weeks with some concern, and believe they may be headed for Venezuela in South America. The two regimes are allies.

It is not clear what cargo the ships are carrying, though one of them has been photographed with seven small attack boats on its desk, of the kind that has often harassed US Navy boats in the Persian Gulf. Some officials believe they may be looking to deliver weapons to Caracas.

Washington would likely view an Iranian move into the Atlantic as an aggressive act that could further exacerbate tensions between the countries.

Asked by CNN, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said a weapons shipment to the Western Hemisphere would be a “provocative act” and threaten US allies.

“We would reserve the right to take appropriate measures — in concert with our partners — to deter the delivery or transit of such weapons,” he said.

But CNN spoke with some officials who expressed doubt that the ships had the capability to attempt a full crossing of the Atlantic. They viewed their route as an attempt to demonstrate strength and expected them to turn back soon.

The new Iranian destroyer Sahand sails in Persian Gulf waters, in Bandar Abbas, Iran on December 1, 2018. (Iranian Army via AP)

If they do not, crossing the Atlantic at their speed would likely take up to two weeks.

ON Wednesday the largest ship in the Iranian navy caught fire and sank in the Gulf of Oman under unclear circumstances. Its crew evacuated.

The Kharg serves as one of a few vessels in the Iranian navy capable of providing replenishment at sea for its other ships. It also can lift heavy cargo and serve as a launch point for helicopters. The ship, built in Britain and launched in 1977, entered the Iranian navy in 1984 after lengthy negotiations that followed Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iranian officials offered no cause for the fire aboard the Kharg. However, it comes after a series of mysterious explosions that began in 2019 targeting ships in the Gulf of Oman. The US Navy later accused Iran of targeting the ships with limpet mines, timed explosives typically attached by divers to a vessel’s hull.

Israel in recent months has been blamed for several strikes in Iranian ships, and Tehran for attacks on Israeli vessels, in an escalating shadow war between the sides.

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