Iran's navy is set to station warships for the first time in the Panama Canal, a critical trade route in America's backyard that has never before seen an Iranian military presence.
Rear Admiral Shahram Irani, the commander of Iran's navy, said on Wednesday that his forces will establish a presence in the Panama Canal later this year, marking the first time Iran's military has entered the Pacific Ocean.
Iran in recent years has placed a greater focus on moving its military into Latin American territories as it strengthens relations with anti-American dictators in the region, most notably in Venezuela. Iranian vessels have docked more frequently in Venezuela as Tehran's hardline regime seeks to prop up dictator Nicolás Maduro. These moves are meant to provoke the United States and signal that Tehran has the ability to station its military apparatus a stone's throw from U.S. territory.
Joseph Humire, a national security analyst who focuses on Latin American issues as executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society think tank, said Iran has been laying the groundwork for this type of voyage by holding joint exercises with allies such as Russia and China, two nations that have also been strengthening their ties with Latin American countries.
"This is what Iran has been building in Latin America for the past 30 or 40 years" by establishing embassies and bilateral agreements with a host of nations, Humire said.
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," Humire said, noting that in addition to Venezuela and Nicaragua, Iran has opened relations with Colombia.
"This is a tremendous escalation if it is to happen," Humire said. "Many people may discount Iran in terms of its capabilities … but I would not discount it because they have been building to this for a very long time."
Iranian rear admiral Irani said the navy presence in the Panama Canal is meant to "strengthen our maritime presence in international waters," according to comments published by Iran's state-controlled media.
"Today we can say that there is no scientific barrier to grow in that field," Irani said, adding that the Iranian naval forces are sailing in the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
It is likely Iran sees its presence in Latin America as a means to bolster and protect its interests in countries like Venezuela, where Iran has been helping Maduro repair his country's dilapidated oil refineries. The two rogue regimes signed a 20-year cooperation plan in June 2022, when hardline Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi was in the country for meetings with Maduro.
Latin American dictatorships have also served as a hub for Iran to evade U.S. sanctions and make arms deals.
Hezbollah, the Iranian-controlled terror group, also has a presence in Latin America that has been gaining ground for years. Hezbollah militants are known to travel freely in Venezuela and across the relatively lawless Tri-Border Area that includes Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.