Iranian Warships Docking in Latin America Reflects New Axis of Power, Analysts Say

By Autumn Spredemann
Autumn Spredemann
Autumn Spredemann
Autumn is a South America-based reporter covering primarily Latin American issues for The Epoch Times.
and Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
National Security Correspondent
Andrew Thornebrooke is a national security correspondent for The Epoch Times covering China-related issues with a focus on defense, military affairs, and national security. He holds a master's in military history from Norwich University.
March 8, 2023Updated: March 14, 2023

Iran appears to be making inroads toward its stated goal of sending warships to the Panama Canal before the end of 2023, but analysts say that’s just the beginning.

Brazil permitted two Iranian warships to moor off Rio de Janeiro’s famous beaches from Feb. 26 to March 4, causing a stir among democratic nations throughout the region.

The arrival of the warships is a consequence of a new wave of leftist leaders who have swept into office across Latin America in recent years, including Brazil’s new president, political and security insiders say. Iran is capitalizing on its strong ties to the region’s socialist regimes.

Epoch Times Photo
Iranian, Russian, and Chinese warships during a joint military drill in the Indian Ocean on Jan. 21, 2022. (Iranian Army office/AFP via Getty Images)

“The big picture here doesn’t look good,” Brazil’s former minister of foreign affairs, Ernesto Araújo, told The Epoch Times.

He said it was alarming to see his native country roll out the red carpet for Iranian warships.

“I’m very concerned as a Brazilian and as someone who has an idea of what Iran is up to in the world,” Araújo said.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—commonly known as Lula—embraced the arrival of the warships IRIS Makran and IRIS Dena on Feb. 26 after more than a month’s delay. The timing was no coincidence but rather a strategic hold because of Lula’s plan to visit U.S. President Joe Biden on Jan. 13.

Documents from the Ministry of Defense in Brazil show that the warships originally were authorized to enter the port of Rio de Janeiro on the same day as Lula’s Biden visit.

The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned both the Makran and the Dena on Feb. 3. Concurrently, Washington pressured Lula to deny the vessels’ entry to Brazilian waters.

Lula da Silva
Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva speaks during the inauguration ceremony of the new Banco do Brasil President Tarciana Medeiros in Brasília, Brazil, on Jan. 16, 2023. (Adriano Machado/Reuters)

Lula granted port entry to the ships, and his administration even doubled down by attending a celebration aboard the Dena on Feb. 28.

Araújo said multiple high-level Brazil officials within Lula’s regime attended the event, which was confirmed by a local media report. The party commemorated 120 years of diplomatic relations between Iran and Brazil.

Washington was already aware of Iran’s intentions to put warships in America’s backyard.

In January, Iranian navy commander Rear Adm. Shahram Irani told the Tehran Times that Iran’s military would station warships at the Panama Canal before the end of the year to “strengthen our maritime presence in international waters.”

“The army navy has been present in all the strategic straits in the world to date, and we have not been present in only two straits. We will be present in one of these straits this year. … We are planning to be present in the Panama Canal,” he said.

Araújo isn’t the only Brazilian politician who’s concerned by the unprecedented arrival of Iranian warships in Brazilian waters.

“If I were president, these warships would not be there,” former President Jair Bolsonaro said during an interview with The Epoch Times.

The United States responded to the docking with some concern.

Jair Bolsonaro
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro looks on after a ceremony about the National Policy for Education at the Planalto Palace in Brasília, Brazil, on June 20, 2022. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

Brazil is a “close democratic partner of the United States,” but “warships like these have no place in the Western Hemisphere, given the signal it sends,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a press briefing.

“We want to continue to work with our Brazilian partners to send the right message to Iran, to others who would pose a threat, pose a challenge to our collective interests around the world,” he said.

“Countries are going to make their own decisions. The Monroe Doctrine is a legacy of history. It is not something that the United States espouses.”

The Monroe Doctrine was a foreign policy declaration by President James Monroe in 1823 that any intervention in the political affairs of the Americas by foreign powers is considered a potentially hostile act against the United States.

When asked whether Brazil might be subject to U.S. sanctions for hosting the Iranian warships, Price sidestepped the question.

Some regional security analysts say a tepid Biden administration response and U.S. sanctions won’t hinder Iran’s plans in the West.

“Make no mistake, Iran is challenging [the] U.S. at home, on its own turf,” Irina Tsukerman, a security analyst and owner of Scarab Rising, told The Epoch Times.

“This ship in Panama signals Iran’s expanding reach, not only in terms of physical relations with these countries but its willingness to chase [the] United States out of its own neighboring vicinity.

“It’s a demonstration of Iran’s growing influence and U.S. weakness and receding impact.”

She noted that Iran would do much more than pay an “occasional visit” to the region in the long run.

Regional analyst and author Dr. Orlando Gutiérrez-Boronat agrees that the arrival of Iranian warships is the harbinger of something bigger: a shift of geopolitical priorities in the region.

“There is an evident process of institutionalization of Iran’s geopolitical presence in Latin America,” he told The Epoch Times.

Step By Step

The Iranian government has been building alliances with sympathetic regimes in Latin America for decades, ranging from building nuclear facilities in countries with entrenched socialist governments to supporting the election campaigns of leftist leaders.

In 2012, Iran’s growing influence in Latin America was noted during a U.S. Senate hearing as a security red flag. Countries clamoring for benefits such as humanitarian aid and outside investment, including Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, were particularly friendly with Iran.

In a report, the lawmakers called Iran’s relationship with Latin American nations a “serious concern.”

“Iran has developed, in the last two decades, a clear strategy towards Latin America,” Boronat said. “The presence of Iran in Venezuela has occurred through a very solid commercial and financial exchange.”

In January, Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro called for a “consolidation” of a new geopolitical power and regional integration.

He suggested that with the support of Argentina, Colombia, and Brazil’s socialist regimes, a “special new hour is coming to unite the efforts and paths of the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Epoch Times Photo
Former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) greets Brazilian Foreign Minister Mauro Luiz Iecker Vieira in Tehran, Iran, on Sept. 13, 2015. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Maduro made his proclamation on Jan. 13, the same day that Brazil granted initial permission for the Iranian warships to dock, and Lula met with Biden in the United States.

“Iran’s economic and recruitment activity in Latin America was always geared toward building up its proxies and strengthening local leftist movements,” Tsukerman said.

“What’s new is … [Iran’s] willingness to expand its naval capabilities. Thus, for the first time, showing a capacity for endangering maritime security, potentially blocking access to ports, and putting a target on U.S. vessels and others operating in the vicinity.”

Tsukerman noted that a long-term Iranian presence in Latin America is the modern-day equivalent of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

In Brazil, Araújo believes that Lula is playing a “double game” of sorts: the political equivalent of the old adage to have your cake and eat it too.

Lula is trying to “be on good terms with both the democratic West and the totalitarian East,” Araújo said.

Security Red Flags

One week before Irani boasted the goal of warships arriving at the Panama Canal in the coming months, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi vowed revenge for the death of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who was killed during a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3, 2020.

“The Americans must know that revenge for martyr Soleimani’s blood is certain, and the murderers and perpetrators will have no easy sleep,” Raisi said during a public speech in Tehran.

And then, warships arrived in Brazil.

The incident highlights the increasing geopolitical ambitions of a confederacy of authoritarian powers. This includes Iran, China, and Russia, which appear to work closely to undermine the United States and the greater, rules-based international order.

Raisi visited China in February and met with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping. The leaders have remained steadfast in their support of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Epoch Times Photo
The Chinese COSCO Shipping Rose container ship sails near the new Cocoli locks in the Panama Canal on Dec. 3, 2018. (Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images)

Chinese state-owned media outlet China Daily stated that Xi and Raisi discussed a “comprehensive cooperation plan” and the expansion of their “strategic partnership.”

The language is similar to that used by the CCP to refer to its support of Russia.

Xi and Raisi issued a joint statement at the time urging that international sanctions against Iran be abandoned in exchange for compliance on nuclear nonproliferation issues. Likewise, the regime has demanded that international sanctions on Russia for its attempted conquest of Ukraine be abandoned and that they are “illegitimate.”

Leaders from the aforementioned authoritarian powers said in September 2022 that they would “promote the development of the international order in a more just and reasonable direction.”

The United States is facing a multifaceted threat from Iran, China, and Russia in its own backyard, all of which have solid alliances in Latin America, Boronat says.

“It’s an additional challenge amid the growing tension the United States faces with autocracies and dictatorships. Today, the main battlefield for democracies is Ukraine. There, the United States faces Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea,” he said.

“They are dictatorships with nuclear potential or with the aspiration to access it. Iranian warships in the Panama Canal pose a challenge far from that battlefield and close to the United States.”