Two Iranian naval ships are reportedly sailing toward the strategic Panama Canal, as the Islamic Republic seeks to project power into the Americas.
An Iranian military presence in the strategic waterway linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would anger Washington, which has warned that it is closely monitoring Tehran's activities in the Western Hemisphere.
The Iranian-made Mowj-class destroyer Dena and the logistics ship Makran have been navigating around the world since September 22, 2022, to "show the growing military and naval power of the Islamic Republic of Iran", according to Iran’s official news agency IRNA.
Dena, which joined the Iranian naval fleet in 2021, weighs 1,300 tons and is said to be armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, naval cannons and torpedoes. With a weight of 121,000 tons, Makran, a converted oil tanker, is the largest ship in the Iranian navy.
Dena and Makran comprise the Iranian navy’s 86th flotilla, one of three naval divisions currently deployed by the Islamic Republic in international waters. The 88th flotilla is sailing in the Indian Ocean, while the 88th flotilla is in the Pacific Ocean.
Brazil granted permission for the Makran and Dena ships to dock in Rio de Janeiro's port during from January 23 to January 30.
In an article published on February 4 and titled “Iran’s active diplomacy in America's backyard,” the government newspaper Tehran Times reported that the ships were “already sailing along the coasts of Latin America" and "will establish a military presence in the Panama Canal."
Citing a 1977 international treaty establishing the canal’s neutral status, the Panama Canal Authority said on February 7 that the Iranian ships will be allowed to sail through the Panama Canal, as long as they abide by global safety norms, pay tolls and not commit any hostile acts.
More than 14,000 vessels went through the 80-kilometer waterway last year, according to the Panama Canal Authority. The canal accounts for 5 percent of world maritime trade.
Last week, US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said Washington was keeping a close eye on Teheran's naval activities in the Western Hemisphere.
"We continue to have a number of tools in our tool belt available to hold the Iranian regime accountable," Patel told reporters.
Meanwhile, US Republican lawmakers urged the administration of President Joe Biden to take a stronger stance toward the Islamic Republic and engage with countries in Central and South America to keep the region free from Iranian influence.
Senator Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida) told Fox News Digital, “Tehran’s ability to expand its military presence in our hemisphere should be a warning sign, especially as it seeks to support the left-wing Marxist regimes that will undermine peace and stability throughout the region."
House Representative Maria Elvira Salazar (Republican-Florida) said that the Islamic Republic “has been aggressively strengthening its ties to the Western Hemisphere through like-minded socialist regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.”
“They are also looking for opportunities elsewhere, and it’s no coincidence that Iranian ships are docking in Brazil just a month after a socialist retook power in the country," Salazar added.
The new Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, met with an Iranian delegation led by Vice President Mohammad Hosseini during his inauguration ceremony last month.
IranWire has reported on several occasions on Iran’s decades-long presence in Venezuela and Nicaragua, where it has strengthened relations with dictators Nicolás Maduro and Daniel Ortega.
In June 2022, Maduro and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi signed a "cooperation agreement at the energy, financial and defence levels." On February 2, Ortega held a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, during which "bilateral cooperation agreements" were also signed. After the talks, Ortega highlighted his "affection” for Raisi and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Amir-Abdollahian also travelled to Cuba earlier this month, where he held talks with President Miguel Diaz-Canel and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. "We exchanged issues on the bilateral agenda with the will to strengthen the friendship ties that unite both nations and to boost economic and commercial relations," Rodriguez tweeted.
Iran has also maintained close contacts with Bolivia. In August 2022, President Luis Arce discussed with Raisi a "strategic plan for cooperation and strengthening of commercial exchange."
Tehran has sought to develop ties with Peru, whose former Socialist president Pedro Castillo had ties with Edwar Husain Quiroga Vargas, a converted Shia who founded the Inkarri Islam group with the objective of recruiting and indoctrinating local indigenous people.