Prelude to a Naval Great Game: Iran in Latin American Waters

Panama Canal is an international waterway connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea [by default the Atlantic Ocean]. A major logistical hub, about 3.5% of the world’s maritime trade is conducted through it every year. A key global trade link, an estimate of over $270 billion worth of cargo crosses the Canal each year – serving over 140 maritime routes to over 80 countries.

Thanks to a century-long US control and its continued hegemony over this piece of strategic real-estate, there has never seen any Suez-like incident over the Canal. However, this long normality risks being ruptured, if a faraway regime decides to muddy this critical waterway.

Currently two Iranian warships are heading for the Canal. A regular occurrence one might think. However, they are  sailing towards it with a specific state-sanctioned purpose: to establish Iran’s military presence in the region.

Viewed from the Middle East, the current geographical location of Iran, the Latin American region is a bit like terra incognita. According to global coordinates finder Geodatos, the distance between Iran and Panama Canal is 13,246 kms. Further, it requires Iranian vessels to cross two oceans to reach Panama Canal. Moreover, unlike many erstwhile European colonial powers, Iran has no ties to the region surrounding the Canal. Culturally too Iran and Latin America are poles apart – one being Islamic and the other primarily Roman Catholic in religious persuasion with the prevalence of Romance languages.

On the face of it, it is worth asking why is Iran so keen to establish its military footprint in Panama Canal? What is it seeking to achieve through this modern maritime adventurism? More importantly, who are its intended audience?

There are several inter-connected strands regarding Iran’s curious naval deployment in alien waters. The foray is everything but a vanity project. At the core of it is a deep yearning by Teheran to be taken seriously by the international community. If seeking military presence in a civilian international waterway is considered an act of belligerency, Teheran has thought long and hard about it. Consequently, its hostile intentions are cultivated and not impulsive. Internationally isolated and a nation battling with an internal civilian uprising, it would appear, the regime seeks to gain some strategic momentum through its naval volte-face in Latin American waters.

Indigenous Capacity

In a competing multipolar world order, true martial strength of a nation is calculated in terms of that nation’s indigenous defence competence – to produce armaments as well as deploy them through its own military manpower.  Following the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran astutely built up a very efficient military establishment. What it lacked all these years was cutting edge state-of-the-art hardware to go with it. Decades of crippling Western economic sanctions prevented it from matching its efficient military manpower with state-of-the-art arsenals. The curious after effect of the Western sanctions was that, instead of buckling under the armed embargoes, the country turned its attention to developing indigenous military production capability.

Teheran’s naval incursions in Latin American region comes in the back of the military establishment self-congratulating its achievements. To rub home the message, Rear Admiral Hamzeh Ali Kaviani, has stressed Iranian warships sailing in Latin American waters is a testimony to the country’s military might “that has increased day-by-day, despite all the pressure against the Islamic Republic over the past 43 years.”

The two warships currently sailing to Panama Canal the Mowj-class destroyer Dana and the logistics ship Makran are indigenously built and equipped with some must-have home-made arsenals such as anti-ship cruise missiles, naval cannons and torpedoes.

Teheran has made no secret of its superpower ambitions in the backyard of its archenemy the United States. If anything, it has gleefully boasted about its long-term objectives and ambitions in the region. Iranian navy’s presence in Latin America is goal oriented. In a clearly worded statement, which can be read as a provocation, Tehran explicitly claimed “the sailing of its naval ships to Panama Canal, seeks to establish [Iran’s] military presence” there.

Spite America!

The question what’s in it for Latin America in the context of Iranian military adventurism in the region looms large in this discussion. There is a clear ideological explanation to all this. With the continent slowly being engulfed by the second wave of red-tide that has seen several left-of-centre regimes assuming power with avowed anti-Americanism, the Iranian incursions into Latin American waters can be seen as a natural organic progression. Led by left wing governments, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Brazil and more recently the land-locked Bolivia, have come to share their common distaste towards the United States.

Taking cognizance of this development, Teheran has been very pro-active in nurturing as well as deepening ties with these anti-American regimes. Accordingly, Iranian warships riding on Latin American waters is facilitated by the conception of my enemy’s enemy is my friend dynamics.

Beyond this abstract hate there are some clear continent-wide developments to reckon with when it comes to Iranian foothold in Latin America. Iranian economic, strategic, cultural footprint in the region is significant. To put things in perspective, in June 2020 US sanction-hit Venezuela and Iran signed a 20-year strategic cooperation agreement which further consolidated their economic ties. A comprehensive plan to enhance bilateral cooperation between the Central American republic of Nicaragua and Islamic Republic of Iran was signed by their foreign minister in December 2002.

According to various intelligence agencies, Iranian-backed militants of Hezbollah have established strong presence in the bad inaccessible borderlands between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Their aim: to promote crime-terror anti-American networks and target institutions and individuals promoting the interest of the United States and Israel.

On the soft power diplomatic front Iran’s Vice President Mohammad Hosseini was an invited guest at the inauguration of Colombian President Gustavo Petro – an ardent critic of the US. Although they have not signed any emotionally charged treaty agreements with Teheran, like their Venezuelan and Nicaraguan counterparts, the top diplomats of Brazil and Bolivia, have nonetheless expressed admiration for Iran and the need for their respective countries establishing stronger economic and political ties.

The dynamics of Brasilia-Teheran bonding in the past has been deeply influenced by ideological bonhomie between Brazil’s current president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his erstwhile Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With Lula back in power, the mood in Teheran is buoyant. The fact that Iranian naval flotilla had docked in the port of Rio de Janeiro, prior to sailing into Panama Canal is a testimony to that re-warming ties between Brazil and Iran.

Beyond the deep blue horizon

In crude comparative terms, Iran’s current naval military engagement capacity in the Panama Canal region vis-à-vis the United States [assuming that is the intended goal of Teheran], is puny and almost insignificant. Its current flotilla consisting of a destroyer and a logistic ship are no match for the mighty U.S. navy’s regionally stationed 4th fleet — in the event of a sea showdown. While an act of defiance against the US hemispheric hegemony – constructed around centuries-old Monroe Doctrine – Teheran’s incursion into the region is a statement. It speaks of the country’s “ability to build a military presence within reach of American territory.” Similarly, it is a proclamation of Teheran’s coming of age.

While sailing into the US-dominated waters with its gunships, is also a testimony to Iran’s refusal to remain a perpetual pariah. Having denied a chair at the high table of international politics for decades, Teheran now seeks to elbow its way into that gathering. The statement of commander of Iran’s Navy, Rear Admiral Shahram Irani that “the [Iranian] navy’s plans for the Panama Canal were intended to “strengthen our maritime presence in international waters” makes that intention abundantly obvious.

With the Chinese incursion into its sovereign airspace with their spy balloons, a bleeding indirect war with Russia in Ukraine, the last thing the military establishment in the US wants is a brand-new confrontation with ever-belligerent Iran. If Washington has maintained a studied stoicism publicly, over the presence of Iranian gunboats in its backyard and has not responded with any knee jerk reaction it may be because of the enormity of current global anarchy in which it finds itself mired in. Take that not as weakness but appreciation of US realpolitik. 

[Photo by Hamid Vakili / Fars Media Corporation, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Amalendu MISRA is a Professor of International Politics, Lancaster University, United Kingdom. Author of “Towards a Philosophy of Narco Violence in Mexico“, New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Follow Professor Misra on Twitter: @MisraAmalendu. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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