US warns Venezuela and Cuba not to host Iranian ships

Washington warns that these ships carry weapons such as fast-attack craft
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AFP PHOTO/HO/Office of the Iranian Army  -   Iranian navy helicopter landing on the Iranian warship Makran in the Gulf of Oman.

US diplomacy is pressuring Caracas and Havana not to allow ships from Iran to dock in their ports. According to reports from Washington, these vessels would contain weapons in compliance with an agreement reached by Venezuela and Iran a year ago during Donald Trump's presidency. As senior Biden administration officials have noted, Venezuela considered buying long-range missiles from Tehran last summer. "The transfer of long-range missiles from Iran to Venezuela is not acceptable to the United States and will not be tolerated or permitted," Elliott Abrams, US Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela.

However, intelligence reports have only confirmed the transport of fast attack boats on an old tanker called Makran, according to satellite imagery. According to these photographs, the Iranian vessels have travelled a significant distance in the Atlantic Ocean. This is the first time the Iranian navy has travelled this far in the Atlantic.

Washington has urged Venezuela and Cuba to reject these ships which it considers a "threat" while promising "appropriate measures" should they ignore the warnings. “The delivery of such weapons would be a provocative act and understood as a threat to our partners in the Western Hemisphere" Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said. The US is also pressuring other countries in the region to reject the ships.

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AP/ALEX BRANDON - Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon, Friday, June 4, 2021, in Washington.

Farzin Nadimi, an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute, has warned of Tehran's potential influence in the region. “If Iran helps Venezuela develop tactics similar to those practiced by the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] in the Persian Gulf region, that could have in my view serious repercussions in the future,” he said.

However, this is not the first time Iran has sold arms to Venezuela. Also, due to the precarious economic situation in the Latin American country, Tehran sent tankers carrying gasoline to deal with fuel shortages. Trump imposed sanctions on Iranian ship captains who sent gasoline to Venezuela, while Nicolás Maduro criticised the US punishment, stressing that his country has the right "to buy whatever it wants to buy"

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Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS - The Iranian naval ship, the Makran, in Bandar Abbas, Iran, in this satellite image taken December 28, 2020.

US officials claim to be working to resolve the problems caused during the Trump administration. During his term in office, in addition to Iranian arms sales to Caracas, he abandoned the nuclear pact with Tehran. Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy for Iran and Venezuela, dismissed the senior Biden administration official’s comment as “petty, political, and far more interested in blaming predecessors than in protecting U.S .national security.” “We all hope diplomacy works,” he added. “If it does not, this administration should get ready to act — not ready to blame more and more people for their inaction.”

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AFP PHOTO/VENEZUELAN PRESIDENCY/JHONANDER GAMARRA - File image released by the Venezuelan Presidency showing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (r) rubbing shoulders with the Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran Javad Zarif (l) at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, 5 November 2020.

Iran, for its part, has denounced the US tracking of its ships. “Iran reserves the right to enjoy normal trade ties in the framework of international law and regulations, and considers any interference and monitoring of these relations as illegal and insulting, and strongly condemns it," said Ali Rabiei, an Iranian government spokesman. Rabiei did not confirm but added that “regardless what these ships carry, there is no ban on the purchase and sale of weapons by Iran". Moreover, as Kirsten Fontenrose, a member of the US think tank Atlantic Council, explains, there is no longer a UN arms embargo on Iran. As a result, they are free to import and export whatever weapons they want. "This could be the first of many transfers we see," Fontenrose said.