Two Iranian Navy warships, believed to have been headed for Venezuela with arms and small attack boats, have now veered their course and are steaming north up the west coast of Africa, according to U.S. officials. U.S. officials believe that the two ships are now heading either into the Mediterranean and then to Syria or north toward Russia.

Tanker Trackers, a website that monitors sea traffic, projects that the warships may be headed to Syria for military exercises with Russia and will reach Gibraltar around July 4. 

Nevertheless, the ships have feigned changing course many times already and this may just well be another smokescreen.

The Ships Appear to Be Carrying Significant Equipment

The domestically-built IRIS Sahand frigate and a converted oil tanker, the Makran, had left Iran and steamed around the Cape of Good Hope, a first for the Iranian Navy. That feat was touted on Iranian television as an indicator of the Iranian Navy’s growing power as the two Iranian warships did not have to dock at an international port.

The Sahand is a 311-foot long frigate that is capable of 30 knots. It is armed with a three-inch (76mm) gun, two 20mm anti-aircraft guns, a Kamand 30mm multi-barrel anti-aircraft weapon, four anti-ship cruise missiles, and six torpedos. It was named after a ship of the same name that was sunk by the U.S. Navy in 1988. 

The Makrand was an oil tanker that has been converted to a sea base for the Iranian Navy. The port ship is designed to be able to stay at sea indefinitely. The front deck has a wide take-off/landing pad that can handle its complement of five helicopters simultaneously. These are two Bell-212s, two Sea-King helicopters, and an RH-53D (Sea Stallion).

Iranian ship Makran with seven Peykaap-II fast attack boats on board. (Daily Mail)

Satellite photos published by the Daily Mail show seven fast attack boats stored on Makrand’s deck. They appear to be Peykaap II-class fast attack missile boats. The 57-foot long attack boats are capable of 52 knots and armed with two single anti-ship missile launchers with Kowsar or Nasr missiles, and single 324mm torpedo tubes that have a range of 21 nautical miles. 

American officials now believe that the change of course by the two vessels was the result of diplomatic pressure as the White House and State Department urged the governments of Cuba and Venezuela not to allow the ships to dock. 

Could the US Have Seized the Iranian Warships?

About a week ago, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had told members of Congress that he was “concerned” about the two Iranian warships thought to be carrying weapons bound for Venezuela.

“I am absolutely concerned about the proliferation of weapons, any type of weapons, in our neighborhood,” he had said to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Converted oil tanker Iranian port ship Makran can simultaneously fly five helicopters on its deck. (Reuters)

Former Washington officials from across the political spectrum urged the Biden administration into action. 

The Iranian warships “are in effect pirate ships,” said John Bolton, former national security adviser to the Trump administration. Bolton said that since Iran has been designated a state sponsor of terrorism and Washington has levied heavy sanctions on both Iran and Venezuela, “the United States has a legitimate right of self-defense against both of them.”

Retired Adm. James Stavridis, the former commander of NATO and the U.S. Southern Command, who was considered a possible running mate to Hillary Clinton in 2016, wrote that “intervention may be justified” because the Iranian arms transfers are a potential violation of U.S. sanctions.

In an editorial piece last week, Stavridis wrote, “If the U.S. was willing to seize Iranian oil shipments for violating sanctions last year, it should be prepared to take direct action to stop these small but lethal machines of war from being delivered to a corrupt and dangerous regime in Caracas.”