US concerned by Iranian ships heading for Venezuela
"I am absolutely concerned about the proliferation of weapons, any type of weapons, in our neighborhood," Austin said in response to a US senator during a congressional hearing.
"And so, I share your concern."
Asked by Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal whether the administration "knows exactly what is on those Iranian vessels," Austin was circumspect.
"I would like to take that conversation, either, either as a question for the record, or I can take that conversation in another forum," the Pentagon chief said.
Blumenthal said the ships, the Makran and the Sahand, are "thought to be carrying weapons that would fulfill a deal that Iran and Venezuela made a year ago."
"We don't know the types of weapons, at least as far as I know," he said. "There are reports that Venezuela was considering purchasing missiles from Iran, including long range ones.
"Commercial satellite imagery of one of the ships shows fast attack boats loaded on the deck," the senator said. "But it's still unclear whether those boats were aboard when the ships began their journey."
Blumenthal said the "precedent" of allowing Iran to provide arms to the region causes him "great concern" and Austin said he shared that concern.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters "we're prepared to leverage our applicable authorities, including sanctions, against any actor that enables Iran's ongoing provision of weapons to violent partners and to proxies.
"If this is an effort to transfer weapons or otherwise to violate its international obligations, we would be prepared to respond."