Alert in the United States after Iran sent warships to Brazil through the Panama Canal. "Iran's 86th warship flotilla is now sailing along the coasts of Latin America," the Tehran Times reported last weekend, sparking fears in Washington. The flotilla includes the Dena, equipped with anti-ship cruise missiles, torpedoes and naval guns, and Makran, which is intended to provide logistical support. "Makran is an advanced vessel weighing 121,000 tonnes. This warship can carry five helicopters and is used to provide logistical support to combat warships," according to Iranian media.
The presence of these Iranian warships has the approval of Lula da Silva's government, who received an Iranian delegation headed by Iran's vice-president for parliamentary affairs, Sayed Mohammad Hosseini, when he took office as president on 1 January. According to a note published in the government's official gazette and reported by Infobae, the Iranian ships have been authorised to dock in the port of Rio de Janeiro by the Brazilian navy. Also, according to the communiqué, the permit was set between 23 and 30 January.
In early 2023, the commander of the Islamic Republic of Iran's navy, Navy Rear Admiral Shahram Irani, announced in Fars News that Tehran "planned to be present in the Panama Canal this year". "We have had a presence in all but two of the world's strategic straits, one of which we will be in this year," he said.
Iran's military elite have welcomed the arrival in the Brazilian port of Rio de Janeiro. "Iran's military might is increasing every day despite all the pressures against the Islamic Republic over the past 43 years," US-sanctioned Rear Admiral Hamzeh Ali Kaviani told Iranian media outlet Press TV.
Iran's military influence is of particular concern to the US at a time when relations between Washington and Tehran have been further strained by Iran's support for the Russian military during the war in Ukraine and the anti-government protests that began in September.
The US "will continue to monitor Iran's attempts to establish a military presence" in the region, a State Department spokesman told Fox News.
However, according to a Western security source consulted by the US media outlet, Iran does not have a "growing" military presence in Central America, although it does wish to project itself into the continent. For this reason, according to the source, "governments in the region must engage with respect to Iran's destabilising international role".
Mojtaba Babei, spokesman for Iran's mission to the United Nations, told Fox News that "the presence of the Iranian navy in international waters respects international law and serves to gain knowledge and experience, not to attack any country".
Republican politicians have condemned Iran's moves, while also criticising Joe Biden's administration for its ties to leaders of the South American left. "Iran's growing presence in the Western Hemisphere should come as no surprise, as the Biden Administration has a history of appeasement and engagement with authoritarian regimes," Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement sent to Fox News. According to Rubio, Tehran's ability to expand and influence the region militarily "should be a warning sign" because, according to the Republican, "it seeks to support leftist Marxist regimes that undermine peace and stability on the continent".
Republican María Elvira Salazar, a member of the US House of Representatives, has expressed a similar view. The Cuban-born US politician points out that Iran has "aggressively" strengthened its relations with the continent through "like-minded socialist regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba".
La congresista de #EEUU, María Elvira Salazar, criticó a #Maduro por el caso del avión iraní: “Abrió las puertas a #Irán para que entre el terrorismo a la región”.#DanielRios pic.twitter.com/oAyFmMQdSs— Daniel Rios (@Daniel_RiosVE) June 24, 2022
Salazar stresses that Tehran "is looking for opportunities elsewhere" and believes that it is "no coincidence" that the ships are arriving in Brazil "barely a month after a socialist returned to power". "Instead of supporting pro-Iranian socialist and leftist regimes in Latin America, the Biden Administration should strengthen political forces committed to keeping our continent free of anti-Semitic terror," Salazar told the US media outlet.
US politicians such as Jeb Bush, the former Republican governor of Florida and a member of United Againts Nuclear Iran - an organisation that aims to prevent the regime in Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons - have also pointed to countries that have helped Iran circumvent Western sanctions. In addition to China and Russia, Bush also accuses Panama of supporting "the regime's continued survival".
Administrador de la @AMP_Panama, Noriel Araúz rechaza artículo del exgobernador estadounidense, Jeb Bush, quien arremetió contra Panamá por su supuesto apoyo indirecto a Irán. pic.twitter.com/9oKIBsqSGc— El Post de Panamá (@elpostdepanama) January 19, 2023
"Without Panama's support, the Iranian regime would face significant obstacles in smuggling its oil and gas around the world," Bush wrote last January in The Washington Post. Panama's Foreign Minister Janaina Tewaney has rejected Bush's accusations, stressing that "it is not true that Panama supports terrorism".
For years, Iran has sought to expand in the Americas through its relations with authoritarian countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In addition to gaining influence in the region, Tehran seeks to circumvent Western sanctions.
As Alberto Priego, professor at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas-ICADE, writes at the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (IEEE), Tehran's main objectives on the continent are to increase international influence, destabilise the United States, obtain foreign currency - both by laundering and generating assets -, seize natural resources and recruit people to train them for violent purposes.
Likewise, the civilian population plays a key role in Iran's strategy on the continent. For this reason, "Iran has been building an extensive network of social and religious centres with which to approach the population in those countries where it has interests", explains Priego.
Some of the sectors through which Iran is penetrating the Americas are, for example, the energy, food, chemical, infrastructure and construction industries. In this regard, it is worth highlighting the agreement signed by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolás Maduro last year to strengthen cooperation in matters related to energy, oil, gas, refineries and security.
Venezuelan President Maduro and his Iranian counterpart Raisi pledge to boost bilateral ties in fields of energy, agriculture, finance and defence pic.twitter.com/20v2FYpnBv— TRT World Now (@TRTWorldNow) June 11, 2022
Tehran and Caracas have maintained close relations for decades. Proof of this is the presence of Iranian intelligence agents, as well as members of the Quds Forces, throughout the country. Likewise, as Hamdan Al-Shehri states in Arab News, sources also reveal that Hezbollah has up to five training camps in Venezuela that have the approval of the Maduro government.
Sostuve una conversación telefónica con Seyed Ebrahim Raisi, Presidente Electo de la República Islámica de Irán. Acordamos fortalecer nuestros lazos de hermandad y cooperación para avanzar en la lucha conjunta frente a las agresiones imperiales en contra de nuestros pueblos. pic.twitter.com/KMnOcvIwYH— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) June 23, 2021
"The Iranian regime's presence in South America is intensifying, mostly backed by a wave of leftist governments fuelled by propaganda slogans against imperialism and US policies," says Al-Shehri, a political analyst and international relations expert. This strategy has also been followed by other powers such as Russia and China to gain influence in various parts of the world. In the case of Moscow, it is quite notable in Africa, specifically in the Sahel, where, by exploiting and nurturing a strong anti-French sentiment, it has managed to gain a foothold in the region.
Latin America is also one of the most relevant centres where Tehran moves and launders its money. As Shehri explains, "money laundering operations are facilitated by some governments, especially those of the Bolivarian states".
Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra.