Iran, China and the Panama Canal: Is the US being encircled?

In a visible challenge to US dominance in the Western Hemisphere, Iranian ships will proceed to the Panama Canal, at both ends of which sits China.

By Lawrence A. Franklin, The Gatestone Institute

Iran and China are on the move again. Last Friday, to the apparent surprise of the Biden Administration, China asserted its influence in the Middle East by entering the vacuum created by US President Joe Biden, and brokering a deal between Iran and its threatened neighbor, Saudi Arabia, which Biden had vowed to make a “pariah,” and “end the sale of material” to it. The Saudis heard.

Iran, meanwhile, has not been shy about its mission to “export the revolution” to the Western hemisphere. Most recently, in February, two Iranian warships docked in Brazil, under its recently elected socialist President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. From there, the ships will reportedly proceed to the Panama Canal, already controlled at both ends by Iran’s newish ally — the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The CCP officially declared a “people’s war” on the United States on May 14, 2019, in its flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily, as well as before that, on January 29, 2017, even if the US was not listening.

Iranian Infiltration of South America

Iran has been openly infiltrating South America for decades. In 1994, it famously blew up a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing 85 people. Recently, while the Biden Administration has been pursuing a “nuclear deal” with Iran — one that will enable it soon to have as many nuclear weapons as it likes — Iran has been expanding its already sizeable foothold south of the US border. The militant Islamic theocracy already has a significant presence — and presumably influence — in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. It is now targeting Brazil and the Panama Canal.

Brazilian President da Silva has a history of welcoming Iran. In 2009, during his previous presidential term, he warmly greeted then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his state visit to Brazil. Da Silva will decidedly shift from the pro-US and pro-Israel foreign policy of his predecessor, President Jair Bolsonaro, to one that favors friendly ties with Iran.

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Da Silva, who served as Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2010, barely defeated Bolsonaro in a runoff election last October. A left-wing populist, da Silva drew support from Brazilians who benefited by his liberal welfare policies, particularly access to affordable health care, during his previous terms as president.

Iran and Da Silva

Under the Bolsonaro administration (2019-2022), diplomatic links between Iran and Brazil were chilly. His investigation of Hezbollah and its activities in the tri-border zone of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina resulted in the 2018 arrest of the terrorist group’s regional financier Assad Ahmad Barakat. Bolsonaro’s support for Israel, on the other hand, was shown by the first visit ever by an Israeli Prime Minister to Brazil: Benjamin Netanyahu attended Bolsonaro’s inauguration in 2019.

Iran welcomed da Silva’s election and the warming of relations with Brazil it expects will ensue. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Nasser Kanaani, was quick to congratulate da Silva on his election. The congratulatory message from Hamas politburo member Basir Naim, was, not surprisingly, that Hamas “looks forward to President Lula mitigating all the effects of the unlimited support [from Bolsonaro] for the Israeli Occupation State.”

Brazilians do not necessarily support da Silva’s shift to the left on foreign policy. A Pew poll conducted in 2015 revealed that the great majority of Brazilians had an unfavorable view of Iran. Brazil had warm relations with Iran during da Silva’s earlier terms. He visited Iran in 2010, following Ahmadinejad’s visit to Brazil in 2009. Brazil is also Iran’s largest trading partner in Latin America. Brazilians ship large amounts of meat (mostly beef), medicines and cars to Iran. Brazil’s oil giant Petrobras has invested heavily in Iran’s oil industry.

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Da Silva’s turn away from the West was recently underscored by his granting permission for two Iranian warships to dock in Rio de Janeiro immediately after his visit to the White House late last month. The US Department of State and the US Ambassador to Brazil Elizabeth Bagley were unsuccessful in their efforts to persuade da Silva to deny Iran’s warships permission to dock.

Iran has high praise for da Silva. He has refused to join the US-led sanctions regime against Tehran, and has criticized Western suspicions of Iran’s intentions concerning nuclear weapons. Da Silva has stated repeatedly that Iran has the right to develop peaceful nuclear programs and that the Islamic Republic should be taken at its word until proven otherwise by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). According to the IAEA, however, Iran seems to have been cheating the “whole time.”

In 2004, the IAEA accused Iran of violating the agency’s “Safeguards Agreement”: the regime failed to notify the IAEA of increased enrichment activities.

The IAEA also noted that Iran prematurely deployed advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges. In still another accusation leveled by the IAEA against Iran, the agency declared that Tehran processed uranium gas necessary for the production of the uranium metal needed for the core of a nuclear weapon. These are but a few of the violations which underscore Iran’s duplicity regarding its nuclear program.

What is needed for peaceful nuclear use is uranium enriched to 3% to 20%. Iran has now enriched uranium to 84%, close to the 90% needed for use in nuclear bombs, and, according to reports, is just “days away” from being able to build its nuclear weapons, as the 2015 JCOA nuclear deal allows it to do, anyway.

The Biden Administration, like the Obama Administration, is most likely just trying to avoid having Iran going full nuclear “on my watch,” as Obama let slip in 2015.

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Iran’s Atlantic Flotilla

The Iranian vessels that docked in Brazil, were the Iris Makran (the largest Iranian warship) and the Iris Dena, a frigate. They are part of Iran’s 86th Flotilla and its newly established Atlantic Ocean Command. In a visible challenge to US dominance in the Western Hemisphere, the ships will proceed to the Panama Canal.

This visit to Latin America is the second such naval deployment to the hemisphere since Iran’s Atlantic maritime tour in 2021. There is every reason to expect Tehran to attempt to expand its diplomatic and military profile in this region.

Brazil – The Linchpin of South America

As Brazil is the largest, most populous, and militarily strongest nation in South America, other Latin American countries might be emboldened to also seek better ties with adversaries of the US. How did “China Beat Out the U.S. to Dominate South America”? According to Bloomberg:

“China has bought up so much copper, pork, and soy—and constructed so many roads, trains, power grids, and bridges—that it’s surpassed the U.S. as South America’s largest trade partner and is now the single biggest trader with Brazil, Chile, and Peru.”

“It’s no secret that China has been pouring resources into South America this century, chipping away at the United States’ historic dominance,” noted the Buenos Aires Times.

Seven South American countries – Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay — are already part of the China’s Belt and Road Initiative; the only country with diplomatic ties to Taiwan is Paraguay. Add to this that China is also apparently eager to increase its economic and military presence in the Caribbean.

Is the US being encircled?

Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.