An Iranian warship may be ferrying millions of gallons of fuel to Venezuela in a bid to evade US sanctions, maritime experts suspect.
Undated photos surfaced Thursday on the Telegram messaging service that show the Iranian navy’s Makran riding low in the water compared to when it was commissioned in January, according to a report by the nonprofit US Naval Institute.
The Makran is a former oil tanker that was designed to carry around 3 million gallons of fuel before it was converted for military use, the USNI said.
“She is loaded down to the gills. She is obviously loaded with fuel but much more fuel than what’s needed,” Salvatore Mercogliano, an adjunct professor at the US Merchant Marine Academy, told the military think tank.
“Those ships could circumnavigate the world dozens of times. But [the] thing you can’t stop her from doing is delivering that fuel to Venezuela — that’s been the big issue, getting around the embargo and getting Iranian fuel to Venezuela.”
In January 2019, President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s production and sale of crude oil, which accounted for more than 95 percent of the socialist nation’s export revenue.
Since then, commercial shipments of oil from Iran to Venezuela have been seized by the US, according to the USNI.
But James Kraska, a professor of international maritime law at the US Naval War College, told the site that the Makran is legally entitled to sovereign immunity — meaning it’s not subject to the laws of any other country.
“Although it is a warship, because it is a naval auxiliary, it is not entitled to belligerent rights during armed conflict, meaning that it may not lawfully conduct attacks,” he said.
“But like US naval auxiliaries, it may carry out the full range of naval support missions and is protected by sovereign immunity.”
Iran’s state TV reported Thursday that the Makran, which was converted for use as an intelligence-gathering vessel, was accompanying the Iranian destroyer Sahand on an Atlantic Ocean voyage.
“The navy is improving its seafaring capacity and proving its long-term durability in unfavorable seas and the Atlantic’s unfavorable weather conditions,” said Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, Iran’s deputy army chief.
Iran also released photos of the Sahand in heavy seas such as are typically found in the Southern Atlantic near the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa, the USNI said.
Sayyari claimed that the ships would not dock at any country during the mission, but Politico has reported that the Makran is carrying fast-attack boats that US intelligence officials believe are likely intended for sale to Venezuela.
On Thursday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was “absolutely concerned about the proliferation of weapons, any type of weapons, in our neighborhood,” Politico said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price wouldn’t speculate Thursday on what Iran’s ships were carrying, but said the US “would be prepared to respond” in the event of “an effort to transfer weapons or otherwise to violate its international obligations.”
“We have seen the press reports regarding this movement,” Price said.
“We’re prepared to leverage our applicable authorities, including sanctions, against any actor that enables Iran’s ongoing provision of weapons to violent partners into proxies.”