An Iranian Navy ship believed to be bound for Venezuela left its port in late April with seven high-speed missile attack devices attached to its deck, USNI News has learned.
According to images provided to USNI News by Maxar, the new base ship of the Iranian navy, IRINS Makran, was seen on April 28 after leaving home port with seven attack boats on board.
Last week, citing three US officials, Politico reported that the Pentagon believes Makran and an Iranian frigate was coming down the east coast of Africa to Venezuela.
The boats seen in the satellite images match the characteristics of the Peykaap family of medium-sized rapid attack craft operated by the sectarian Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGCN). The IRGCN is responsible for coastal security in Iran and the Strait of Hormuz, and similar ships equipped with torpedoes and missiles have been used to harass U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf.
The seven missiles on board Makran are each approximately 17.5 meters in length and correspond to the Peykaap family of medium-sized rapid attack craft operated by Iran. There are several variations of these craft in Iranian service, although all of them are generally similar. The latest Peykaap-II type (also known as the Bavar-class) is 57 feet long and can carry two anti-ship missiles and two 12.75-inch torpedoes. The missiles could be of the Kowsar or Nasr type, which are derived from Chinese models with a fairly modest range of around 18 nautical miles.
In addition, the ship could carry other military equipment that is not easily visible in the images. A converted oil tanker, Makran is the newest and largest warship of the Iranian Navy. Her new role was compared to the US Navy Expeditionary Mobile Base (ESB). Like the ESB, the 755 feet long Makran is designed to be a mobile maritime base for small boats and aircraft capable of operating anywhere in the world. The conversion added a large flight deck, the ability to carry boats and other equipment on the deck and additional cargo below.
There are fears that Venezuela is trying to acquire ballistic missile technology from Iran. Some areas of the deck are now covered, so it was not possible to assess the ship’s full cargo. The Venezuelan regime, led by President Nicola Maduro, has spoke openly about acquiring weapons from Iran. Meanwhile, Iranian special forces belonging to the IRGC’s Quds force can already help the Venezuelan army.
If the ships are delivered, they can form the core of an asymmetric war force within the Venezuelan armed forces. This could be focused on disrupting navigation as a way to counter superior naval forces. The shipping routes to and from the Panama Canal are close to the Venezuelan coast.
The Venezuelan navy has attempted in recent years to bolster its own coastal defense vessels with the acquisition of high-speed attack gear to assert its territorial claims over the Caribbean Sea, according to an October entry in The Marines of Jane’s World.
Messages left with spokespersons for the southern and central commands of the United States on Tuesday were not immediately returned.
The deployment of Makran comes as Iran and Venezuela move closer. Both governments are subject to US government sanctions and have been barred from accessing the global market.
Last year, the Maduro government traded nine tons of gold for aid to improve its oil refineries, reported Bloomberg. Iran has also shipped oil to Venezuela.
Although it is not clear whether the craft seen on board Makran are destined for the Venezuelan Navy as part of ongoing arms sales or if the Iranians are going to drill with Venezuelan own forces for green water, the presence of the boats and the belief of US officials that the Iranian ship is heading towards South America suggest increased military cooperation between Caracas and Tehran.
In March, the commander of the United States Southern Command, Admiral Craig Faller, warned the Senate that the two countries had continued to expand their cooperation in the trade of military resources.
“Over the past year, Iran has expanded its economic and security cooperation with Venezuela on transfers of fuel, basic foodstuffs and military assistance, possibly expanding the presence of the Quds Force in the region” Faller said in a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Tehran also relies on an Iranian state-supported, non-state-facilitated media system to shape the news realm to generate empathy for Iran and Shia Islam and to decrease western influence in the hemisphere.