On January 11, the Iranian Navy announced plans to expand military operations to the Panama Canal later in the year to strengthen its presence in international waters, state-run The Tehran Times reported. According to experts, the move is a sign that the Islamic country seeks to strengthen ties with its Latin American allies and challenge the United States.
“So far, we have been present in all the strategic straits of the world and we have not been present in only two straits,” said Rear Admiral Shahram Irani, commander of the Iranian Navy, The Tehran Times reported. “This year […] we are planning to be present in the Panama Canal.”
According to Rear Adm. Irani, Tehran has already established command centers for the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans.
The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and is one of the two most strategic artificial waterways in the world. Panama is some 3,000 kilometers away from the southern border of the United States.
Iran’s goal “has always been to have a military presence in Latin America, so it’s not surprising at all for its navy to announce it’s going to make moves on the Panama Canal,” Joseph Humire, director of the Center for a Secure Free Society, told news site The Washington Free Beacon. “This is a tremendous escalation […].”
“Many people may discount Tehran in terms of its capabilities […] but I would not discount it […],” Humire said. “This is what Iran has been building in Latin America for the past 30 or 40 years” by establishing embassies, bilateral agreements, and carrying out military exercises with allies like Russia, China, and Venezuela in the Caribbean Sea, he added.
Rear Adm. Irani’s announcement “should be considered a violation of Panama’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Alonso Illueca, professor of international law at Santa María la Antigua University, Panama, told Central American magazine Expediente Público on January 14.
Stationing Iranian warships in the Panama Canal represents a threat to the world’s security, Panamanian daily Crítica reported. Iran is seeking to provoke the United States and show that it has the capability to move its military apparatus close to U.S. territory, the Free Beacon reported.
According to U.S.-based news network NewsNation, this move for Tehran would be a step toward a growing relationship with its allies, countries led by dictators such as Venezuela and Nicaragua.
In recent years, Iranian ships have docked more frequently in Venezuelan ports “to prop up dictator Nicolás Maduro,” Free Beacon reported. Latin American dictatorships also serve as a means for Iran to evade U.S. economic sanctions and increase its arms and drone business.
Tehran’s presence in the Panama Canal is a cause for concern as it could be used to smuggle weapons, British daily Express reported. The U.S. is closely monitoring “Iran’s attempts or at least its statements of its intent to develop a military presence in the Western Hemisphere,” Ned Price, U.S. State Department spokesperson said in a January 12 press briefing.
On January 2, Australia said to have tracked two Iranian warships passing through the South Pacific in November 2022. The vessels, which included an Iranian frigate and a converted oil tanker, docked in Jakarta before heading to the Pacific, Spanish news site Galaxia Militar reported on January 12.
“Iran’s concerted efforts to expand its influence in Latin America are part of its larger agenda to […] achieve its imperialist and hegemonic ambitions,” Iranian-American political scientist Majid Rafizadeh told Express.
Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah has also been increasing its presence in the Latin American region. The group’s militants are known to travel freely in Venezuela and across the tri-border area that includes Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, Free Beacon reported.
“It is paramount to examine and counter the Iranian regime’s efforts to export its fundamentalist ideology not only in the Middle East, but also beyond,” Rafizadeh said, Arab New reported January 8.
The United States should address all aspects of the Iranian threat, drain Tehran’s finances, and develop a sustained pressure campaign to encourage the collapse of that “brutally repressive regime,” the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies said in a January 10 report.