Iranian Navy’s new forward-basing ship, IRINS Makran, was seen on April 28 leaving its homeport with seven high-speed missile attack boats aboard and is being considered a suspected shipment of arms to Venezuela.
Satellite imagery obtained by USNI News from Maxar show a boat, matching the characteristics of the Peykaap family of medium-sized fast attack craft (FAC) operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN).
Both Iran and Venezuela are under sanctions from the U.S. government and have been restricted from accessing the global market.
"With few friends, Maduro has leaned into his relationship with Iran and the IRGC is seeking to capitalize on the situation. Iran has managed to develop a number of military weapons and systems that could be useful for smaller states. It’s unsurprising that Venezuela might seek to procure some," Iran expert Afshon Ostovar, a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, told USNI News on Tuesday.
There has been concern that Venezuela may attempt to acquire ballistic missile technology from Iran. Some areas of the deck are now covered, so it has not been possible to assess the full cargo of the ship. The ship could be carrying other military equipment not readily apparent from the imagery, the report said.
On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry officials asserted their rights to operate worldwide when asked about Makran heading to Venezuela.
“[Mistry spokesman] Saeed Khatibzadeh emphasized Iran’s legal right to go through all international seas,” according to a summary of a Monday press conference from the state-controlled Iran Press News Agency. Khatibzadeh also warned the U.S. officials about any actions against Iranian ships.
While it’s unclear if the craft seen on aboard Makran are meant for the Venezuelan Navy as part of ongoing arms sales or if the Iranians will drill with Venezuela’s own green water forces, the presence of the boats and U.S. officials’ belief that the Iranian ship is headed for South America suggest increasing military cooperation between Caracas and Tehran
The latest alleged shipment of craft comes nearly a year after reports of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro showing interest in buying missiles from Iran surfaced. Last year, the Maduro government exchanged nine tons of gold for assistance improving their petroleum refineries, while Iran has also shipped oil to Venezuela.
If delivered, the attack boats have potential to form the core of an asymmetrical warfare force within Venezuela’s armed forces focused on disrupting shipping routes close to Venezuelan coast, as a means of countering superior naval forces. Shipping routes to and from the Panama Canal are near the Venezuelan coast.
“In the past year, Iran has expanded economic and security cooperation with Venezuela on fuel transfers, food staples, and military assistance, possibly expanding the Quds Force’s presence in the region,” USNI quoted U.S. Southern Command commander Adm. Craig Faller to have said in a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The seven missile craft aboard Makran are each approximately 57 feet (17.5 meters) long. There are several variations of these craft in Iranian service, although all 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 types, which are derived from Chinese models with a quite modest range of around 18 nautical miles.
The 755-foot long Makran is designed to be a mobile sea base for small boats and aircraft capable of operating anywhere around the world. The converted oil tanker is equipped with a large flight deck, the capacity to carry boats and other equipment on deck and additional cargo below.