US DEFENSE officials are "greatly concerned" about two Iranian warships that have entered the Atlantic Ocean and are believed to be smuggling weapons to Venezuela.
The Iranian destroyer Sahand and support vessel Makran have been tracked by intelligence agencies since they left the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas last month.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin echoed the fears of lawmakers on Thursday at the Senate Armed Service Committee in his first public comments on the matter.
The Pentagon chief told the committee: "I am absolutely concerned about the proliferation of weapons, any type of weapons, in our neighborhood."
Senators said allowing the ships to dock would be "significant" on numerous levels while another official said the US wouldn't hesitate to take "appropriate measures" to stop it.
It comes in the wake of the Biden administration urging Venezuela, Cuba, and a number of other countries in the area to turn the ships away.
Allowing the ships to dock would mark the first time Iranian naval vessels have completed the formidable journey across the Atlantic.
"The precedent of allowing Iran to provide weapons to the region causes me great concern," Sen. Richard Blumenthal added.
"And this may be a first testing blow by Iran, as to whether they can get away with it and make mischief."
Iran's state TV released a short clip of the destroyer cruising through the Atlantic’s rough seas earlier this week, which was likely shot from the Makran, AP reported.
The support vessel was a converted commercial oil tanker with a mobile launch platform for helicopters.
"The delivery of such weapons would be a provocative act and understood as a threat to our partners in the Western Hemisphere,' a senior administration official told Politico.
"We would reserve the right to take appropriate measures in coordination with our partners to deter the transit or delivery of such weapons."
Iran maintains close ties to Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro, with the country having shipped gasoline and other products to the country amid a U.S. sanctions campaign targeting fuel-starved Caracas.
One of Maduro’s top aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, has denied press reports that the ships will be docking at Venezuela.
And Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh has also declined to say where the Makran was headed.
Speaking during a news conference on May 31, Khatibzadeh said: “Iran is always present in international waters and it has this right based on international law and it can be present in international waters.
“No country is able to violate this right, and I warn that no one makes miscalculations. Those who sit in glass houses should be careful.”
Questions had been raised over seven Iranian fast-attack crafts which appear to have been captured in photographs as sitting on board the deck of the Makran.
The craft were the type the Guard uses in its encounters with U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, and its narrow mouth, the Strait of Hormuz.
It was not clear what Venezuela’s plans would be for the ships.
“If the boats are delivered, they may form the core of an asymmetrical warfare force within Venezuela’s armed forces,” the U.S. Naval Institute said in an earlier published analysis.
“This could be focused on disrupting shipping as a means of countering superior naval forces. Shipping routes to and from the Panama Canal are near the Venezuelan coast.”
The odd voyage comes ahead of Iran’s presidential election, on June 18.
The election will see voters select a successor for the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani.
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