Iranian warship on Atlantic mission

June 11, 2021 - 15:10

TEHRAN - An Iranian destroyer and support vessel are now sailing in the Atlantic Ocean on a rare mission far from Iran.

The destroyer Sahand and the intelligence-gathering vessel Makran departed last month from Iran’s southern port of Bandar Abbas, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, Iran’s deputy Army chief for coordination affairs, said on Thursday. 

Sayyari described the mission as the Iranian Navy’s longest and most challenging voyage yet.

The Iranian TV released a short clip of the destroyer cruising through the Atlantic’s rough seas. 

“The Navy is improving its seafaring capacity and proving its long-term durability in unfavorable seas and the Atlantic’s unfavorable weather conditions,” Sayyari said, adding that the warships would not call at any other ports during the mission.

In late May, the website Politico cited anonymous officials as suggesting that the ships’ final destination may be Venezuela. 

The Iranian deputy Army chief for coordination affairs Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari says the vessels departed from the port city of Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf on May 10 and has so far sailed some 6,000 nautical miles, about 12,000 kilometers, going around the Cape of Good Hope during their thirty days of traveling in high seas. Venezuela is also under sanctions by the United States.

In a press briefing on May 31, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said, “Iran is always present in international waters and it has this right based on international law and it can be present in international waters.” 

He added, “No country is able to violate this right, and I warn that no one makes miscalculations. Those who sit in glass houses should be careful.”

The United States has reportedly threatened Venezuela and Cuba against letting in two Iranian ships that are claimed to be headed to South American shores with a weapons cargo.

Citing an unnamed senior official with the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, Politico claimed the ships are believed to be carrying weapons from Iran to Venezuela under a deal between the two countries during the administration of former President Donald Trump.

“The delivery of such weapons would be a provocative act and understood as a threat to our partners in the Western Hemisphere,” the official said in a statement to Politico. “We would reserve the right to take appropriate measures in coordination with our partners to deter the transit or delivery of such weapons.”

During his tenure, Trump withdrew U.S. recognition of the Venezuelan president and pulled Washington out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Under Trump, Washington tightened its economic sanctions on both the Iranian and Venezuelan nations.

“The sale of the Iranian weapons happened one year ago under the previous administration and like many situations related to Iran under the previous administration — including the breakout of Iran’s nuclear program following the Trump administration’s reckless withdrawal from the [Iran nuclear deal] — we are working to resolve it through diplomacy,” the U.S. official said.

“But to be clear, Iran sold weapons to Venezuela over a year ago, which we believe was to test the Trump administration’s maximum pressure posture,” he said.

Meanwhile, hawkish U.S. Senator Marco Rubio claimed in a tweet on Thursday that Venezuela had bought military equipment from Iran and then invited the Iranians into the Western Hemisphere.

“So don’t be surprised if in less than 3 weeks, we have Iran’s largest military vessel & their most modern warship (a guided missile corvette) patrolling the Gulf of Mexico,” Rubio claimed.

U.S. can’t take action against warship under intl. law, says Foreign Policy

The United States cannot take action under international law against two Iranian ships on voyage toward the North Atlantic Ocean even if the vessels are violating U.S. sanctions, Foreign Policy said in a commentary on Thursday.

Citing three people familiar with the situation, the American news website said the vessels have been heading south along the east coast of Africa.

Foreign Policy argued that any U.S. action against the vessels would be unlawful and undermine sovereign immunity as a core tenet of international order.

“The costs of direct action would be severe, exposing the United States to charges of hypocrisy toward the rules-based order and potentially opening U.S. naval vessels to similar treatment by adversaries,” the American news publication said, arguing that the United States should “employ diplomacy rather than force” and encourage states along the route to deny the Iranian vessels port access if requested.

It added that in times of peace, sovereign immunity is a practically all-powerful ward against a foreign state’s jurisdiction, with exceptions only in extreme circumstances involving failed states, fake warships, or weapons of mass destruction. “This case, however, is textbook.”

Admiral Sayyari reiterating that Iran is entitled under international law to have a naval presence in international waters. He said the ships have managed to reach the Atlantic Ocean without calling at other countries’ ports.

“Significant step”

The Iranian ships’ journey across the Atlantic has been described as a “significant step” for the Navy, showing Iran’s naval capabilities and the Navy’s increasing access to the Western Hemisphere.

According to Press TV, Sayyari explained that the vessels departed from the port city of Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf on May 10 and has so far sailed some 6,000 nautical miles, about 12,000 kilometers, going around the Cape of Good Hope during their thirty days of traveling in high seas.

While Tehran has not commented on the ships’ destination nor their cargo, it has pointed out that there is no ban on Iran’s sale of weapons to other countries under UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

“America has long tried to get the resolution violated [by others], but to no avail,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told a press conference on Tuesday, making a reference to Washington’s failed attempts last year to keep a 13-year-old arms embargo on Iran, which finally expired on October 18.

“Iran reserves the right to enjoy normal trade ties in the framework of international law and regulations, and considers any interference and monitoring of these relations as illegal and insulting, and strongly condemns it,” Press TV quoted Rabiei as saying.

Asked about the arms embargo, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed that it expired in October, saying, however, that “it is in many ways a shame that an important tool was no longer available.”

Nevertheless, Price told reporters on Thursday that the United States is prepared to “leverage our applicable authorities, including sanctions, against any actor that enables Iran’s ongoing provision of weapons” to what he called violent partners and proxies.

“We will continue to apply pressure on Iran if it attempts to transfer any weapons to violent partners and proxies,” he said.

While underlining the necessity of freedom of navigation and admitted that the U.S. is unaware of the destination and cargo of the Iranian ships, the State Department spokesman went on to warn Tehran against “the transfer of weapons or other illicit materials”, claiming Washington can try to “eliminate such activity.”

Foreign Policy further pointed to the UN Convention’s Article 5, which reads: “Warships on the high seas have complete immunity from the jurisdiction of any State other than the flag State,” arguing that even in the territorial sea, sovereign immunity remains a powerful protection and that warships enjoy the right of innocent passage in foreign territorial seas.

“As long as the warship is engaged in innocent passage, not threatening the coastal state, the coastal state can, at most, order the warship to leave the territorial sea,” it said. “Interdiction or arrest are out of the question unless the warship threatens the coastal state, at which point self-defense would be permitted.”

The article maintained that nothing changes even if U.S. officials ascertain the vessels are carrying conventional arms that violate U.S. sanctions on Caracas, and so long as the Iranian warships do not threaten use of force, sovereign immunity protects them wherever they are.

The Foreign Policy article also noted that even if an attempted enforcement action by the U.S. succeeds both operationally and legally, Washington could put U.S. naval vessels around the world at jeopardy.

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