The State Department said on Tuesday that it is monitoring "Iran's attempts to have a military presence in the Western Hemisphere," putting the Biden administration in an increasingly difficult position as it balances anti-regime protests, Iranian military escalation, and collapsing diplomacy over a revamped nuclear deal.
A State Department spokesman told the Washington Free Beacon that it is tracking a recent announcement by the commander of Iran’s navy indicating that warships will establish a presence in the Panama Canal as soon as next month. Already, two Iranian warships—including one equipped with "anti-ship cruise missiles, torpedoes, and naval cannons"—were granted permission to dock in Brazil earlier this week, according to documents published by the Brazilian Navy.
"We are aware of these claims by Iran’s navy," the State Department spokesman told the Free Beacon. "We continue to monitor Iran's attempts to have a military presence in the Western Hemisphere." The official would not preview any potential action the Biden administration may take in response, or answer questions about how it views Iran’s growing military presence in Latin America.
Iran’s increasing influence in Latin America poses a unique problem for the Biden administration as it navigates diplomacy in the region amid a growing number of dictatorships that view an alliance with Tehran as beneficial. Venezuela, for instance, recently inked a massive foreign policy agreement with the Iranian government that will see Tehran increasing its role in the country’s lucrative energy sector. Iranian vessels have more frequently voyaged into the Latin American region, and this month’s announcement by the Iranian Navy indicates the hardline regime is seeking to protect its interests with force.
Iran has posed a challenge for President Joe Biden since he entered office with the goal of negotiating a revamped version of the 2015 nuclear deal. Since that time, Iran has increased its global terrorism operations, including those targeting American interests. Now, with anti-government protests gaining momentum, the Biden administration has refused to admit diplomatic defeat and continues to try to cajole the hardline regime into rejoining the nuclear pact, which will provide it with billions of dollars in cash windfalls and solidify its grip on power.
The latest military announcement marks a major escalation by Tehran’s war forces to establish a military threat in America’s backyard, with the help of anti-American dictatorships in Latin America. It also sets up a potential showdown with the Biden administration, which is already being pressured to take action.
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 that with Iranian war ships already docked in Brazil, the Biden administration has an opportunity to sanction Tehran’s Latin American networks.
"The Iranian warships ported in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are about one to two weeks away or more from entering the Canal Zone, giving the Biden administration time to leverage and enforce U.S. sanctions," Humire said. "Integrated deterrence, which is the defense posture of the Biden administration, requires ‘integration across the spectrum of conflict to prevent competitors from altering the status quo in ways that harm U.S. vital interests.’"
Iran, Humire explained, "is literally testing the waters for further provocations in the near future. This cannot be allowed. And our defense posture is designed to deal with this."
The two Iranian warships are expected to depart Brazil on Jan. 30 and head to Venezuela before entering the Panama Canal around Feb. 7, when President Joe Biden will be delivering his State of the Union address, according to Humire.
Iranian rear admiral Shahram Irani, the commander of Iran's navy, said in recent remarks that the placement of warships in the Panama Canal is part of an effort by Iran to "strengthen our maritime presence in international waters." Irani indicated that Iran’s navy is prepared for the long voyage and that "there is no scientific barrier to grow in that field."
Iran’s footprint in the region has steadily grown for decades, bolstered by the hardline regime’s alliance with Russia and China—which also have prioritized relations with Latin American countries they see as a counterweight to U.S. influence in the region. Iran has helped Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed resistance group, increase ties with regional drug cartels that smuggle weapons and arms across Latin America.
Amid this growing threat in America’s backyard, Iran also says that it could take steps to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping lane in the Persian Gulf that is frequently the site of scuffles between the U.S. military and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the country’s paramilitary fighting force.
The State Department spokesman told the Free Beacon that Iran’s parliament is considering a measure that would restrict European commercial movement through the shipping lane. This would mark a major deterioration in ties between Europe and Iran as the European Union’s own parliament debates whether it will designate the IRGC as a terror group.
"We are aware of this discussion among some members of Iran’s Majles," the State Department spokesman said, referring to Iran’s parliament. The official would not preview any potential reaction by the United States if Iran follows through on this threat.
Mohammad Hassan Asfari, vice chairman of the Internal Affairs and Councils Commission in Iran’s parliament, said the decision to block the Strait of Hormuz is meant as payback for Europe’s tough line on the IRGC.
"We will definitely not remain silent either," Asfari was quoted as saying earlier this week in Iran’s state-controlled press. "Closing the Strait of Hormuz is on the agenda of the parliament."
"If the Europeans are going to treat our armed forces and official forces like this, we will also put other options on the table, including restricting the traffic of European commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz," Asfari said.
Iranian leaders also said on Tuesday that they will soon unveil new sanctions on the European Union and United Kingdom. These measures are also meant as payback for efforts in Europe to crack down on Iran’s terrorism enterprise.