People familiar with the matter believe diplomatic efforts may have made a difference.
By Político – Lara Seligman and Nahal Toosi
The Iranian navy ships believed to be originally headed toward Venezuela changed course early this week and are now steaming north up the west coast of Africa, U.S. officials said.
The ships, which U.S. officials believe may have been preparing to conduct an arms transfer, have appeared to change course several times during their journey from Iran and could do so again. But after the course change early this week, they are likely now headed either into the Mediterranean – potentially planning to sail off of Syria – or north toward Russia, according to a defense official briefed on the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject.
U.S. officials believe the course change indicates that a diplomatic campaign to urge governments in the Western Hemisphere to turn away the ships was successful, the official said. The Iranian frigate Sahand and afloat staging base Makran charted a new course after Biden administration officials publicly and privately urged the governments of Venezuela, Cuba and other countries in the region not to allow them to dock, POLITICO reported.
Spokespeople for the White House and the Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
When asked about the situation during his regular news briefing, after this story was published, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the Biden administration is monitoring the developments but declined to comment on the ships’ potential destination.
He also reiterated past warnings. “We are prepared to leverage applicable authorities, including sanctions, against any actor that enables Iran’s ongoing provision of weapons to violent partners and proxies around the world,” he said.
U.S. officials began closely monitoring the ships’ progress in mid-May as they left the Gulf and headed down the east coast of Africa. Officials believe they are carrying fast-attack boats and potentially other weapons to fulfill a deal that Iran and Venezuela inked a year ago; satellite images from May 10 show seven such vessels on the Makran’s deck.
Read more: Político – Iranian ships once believed to be headed toward Venezuela change course, U.S. officials say