Iran on Friday confirmed that two of the country’s warships are sailing across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, setting off alarm bells for top U.S. military officials who fear Tehran may be sending weapons to Venezuela or elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.
Iranian officials boasted about the mission and said it is an example of the country’s growing military capabilities.
“Iranian naval fleet, comprising Sahand destroyer and Makran ship has set off for the Atlantic Ocean for the first time without mooring in other countries’ ports,” Iranian Rear Adm. Sayyari told the country’s state-run Fars News Agency. “This powerful presence indicates the naval capability and authority of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
“We consider presence in international waters as the inalienable right of the Navy of the Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran and we will continue this path with authority,” he said.
U.S. military officials have been tracking the ships for weeks. The vessels departed Iran about a month ago.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers Thursday that he’s deeply concerned about the Iranian naval mission, particularly if the two ships are delivering weapons or illicit fuel to Venezuela. Iran and Venezuela have deepened ties in recent years as tensions between the U.S. and both nations have risen.
“The precedent of allowing Iran to provide weapons to the region causes me great concern,” Mr. Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I am absolutely concerned about the proliferation of weapons, any type of weapons, in our neighborhood.”
Iran has a history of moving weapons via ship. Just last month, for example, U.S. forces intercepted an unmarked vessel that officials said set sail from Iran. The vessel was carrying a massive amount of arms and was believed to be headed toward Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels are battling the Yemeni government and its chief ally, Saudi Arabia.