Over the past couple of weeks, a large Iranian navy transport ship, the Makran, has been lumbering through the Atlantic, reportedly headed to the Caribbean. Strapped to the top of this warship is a very lethal cargo: seven high-speed missile attack boats, probably headed to Venezuela.
The speedboats are of the Iranian Peykaap class, and are typically operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Nearly 60 feet in length, they can carry two lethal antiship missiles that have a range of close to 20 miles in surface-to-surface mode, as well as a pair of 13-inch torpedoes. Some reports indicate an Iranian frigate may be accompanying the Makran and her cargo.
I know that class of ship well, as do most U.S. Navy officers. We see them frequently in the Arabian Gulf, harassing merchant ships and occasionally challenging our warships. They are quite dangerous, especially in a constrained seaway like the Gulf.
What is unique in this situation is that they are paired with the Makran, which can function as a kind of 755-foot “mother ship” to a hostile brood of missile boats, providing general logistic support, fuel, ammunition and long-haul communications. After unloading the speedboats, the Makran can operate with a large flight deck to operate helicopters, which would effectively extend the combat range of the patrol boats by giving them “eyes” over the horizon.
What is going on between Iran and Venezuela so close to American shores, and how would the Venezuelans cooperate with the Iranians in using this sea power?
There have been close relations between Venezuela and Iran for two decades, initiated by the former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. Likewise, the two nations’ navies have cooperated since the turn of the century. When Chavez died in 2013 and current dictator Nicolas Maduro took over, the friendship only deepened. Bitter relations with the U.S., crippling sanctions, crumbling economies, harsh regimes with regional ambitions — Tehran and Caracas, unfortunately, have a lot in common.
When I was the head of the U.S. Southern Command in the late 2000s, I was particularly concerned about Venezuelan irregular maritime activities directed against U.S. allies in the region such as Colombia and Trinidad and Tobago. These included pressuring commercial fisherman and providing tacit support to smuggling vessels.
The Venezuelan navy has several potential uses for the Iranian missile boats. The most obvious would be to harass Colombian warships, which often operate in the waters of the southern Caribbean. The two nations are involved in several territorial disputes, and Colombia has attempted to provide U.S.-supplied food aid to Maduro’s opposition.
Another option is for the Venezuelans to use the Iranian boats to protect and escort merchant vessels violating U.S. sanctions or involved in narcotics smuggling. After the U.S. seized more than one million barrels of oil from Iranian tankers bound for Venezuela in August, it seems the Maduro regime concluded it needed a more robust scheme for protecting vessels coming in and out of its ports.
Finally, the Venezuelans could generally make themselves nuisances in nearby waters, much as the Iranians do in the Gulf; the Caribbean is rich with cruise ships, merchant cargo and larger vessels headed toward the Panama Canal. They could also link up with Cuban naval vessels to form an axis of annoyance across the eastern Caribbean.
Whether Iranian sailors will operate the speedboats or train the Venezuelans to do so themselves is unclear. Either eventuality is of great concern to Southern Command in Miami. It already has its hands full with counter-narcotics enforcement, humanitarian disaster relief, medical diplomacy centered on Covid-19 and, above all, protection of the Panama Canal and the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Arms transfers by either nation are a potential violation of U.S. sanctions, so intervention may be justified. The U.S. should take any intelligence it has on the voyage of the Makran to the Organization of American States, which can coordinate a response with America’s partners in the region.
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.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates. His latest book is '2034: A Novel of the Next World War.'
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