Iranian warships in Rio de Janeiro raise concern in Jerusalem, Washington

Israel and US condemn Brazil for hosting the vessels, saying it was a ‘prize’ for Tehran that is looking to challenge the West; Biden administration sanctions both ships

Iran's military ship IRIS Makran floats off Arpoador beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, March 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
Iran's military ship IRIS Makran floats off Arpoador beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, March 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The arrival this week to Rio de Janeiro of two Iranian warships that Brazil’s government authorized to dock has prompted rebukes both from Israel and the US

“Israel sees the docking of Iranian warships in Brazil a few days ago, as a dangerous and regretful development,” the spokesperson of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Lior Haiat, wrote Thursday on Twitter. “Brazil should not grant any prize to a malign state.”

Haiat’s comments followed others the day before by US State Department spokesperson Ned Price. In response to a reporter’s question about the ships reaching Brazil, Price said that Washington is discussing the issue with Brazilian partners and that it wants to ensure Iran “is not able to acquire a foothold, is not able to take advantage of others in our hemisphere.”

“It is certainly not the case that the Brazilian government, the Brazilian people would want to do anything that would assist, that would aid a government, a regime that is responsible for a brutal crackdown and violent repression against its own people,” he added.

On Thursday, one of the two ships was spotted off Rio’s world-famous south zone of beaches, while the other was docked downtown. The IRIS Makran and IRIS Dena ships are authorized to stay in Rio until March 4.

The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control last month designated both ships for sanctions.

Brazil’s foreign ministry didn’t immediately respond to the Associated Press’ request for comment on the statements from the Israeli and American officials.

The trip by the Iranian navy comes amid heightened tensions between Tehran and the West over the collapse of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and as the Islamic Republic enriches uranium to its closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.

Iran’s military ship IRIS Dena is anchored in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, March 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Iranian officials have portrayed the trip as challenging America’s influence in its own backyard – long a point of contention as Tehran continually criticizes the presence of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet in the region, which patrols the Persian Gulf and its narrow mouth, the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

The state-run IRNA news agency quoted Iranian navy commander Rear Adm. Shahram Irani in January as saying that “the Islamic Republic is not present in two strategic straits on the planet, but in the current year, the Iranians plan to have a presence in one of them, which is the Panama Canal.” State media has described the trip as challenging American “hegemony.”

Iran also faces nationwide protests and anger after the September death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being detained by the country’s morality police. In the time since those demonstrations, Tehran has tried to flex its military muscle elsewhere as well. Tehran has supplied drones to Russia that killed Ukrainian civilians, run drills in a border region with Azerbaijan and bombed Kurdish positions in Iraq.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made international diplomacy a feature of his second presidential term, which ended in 2010. That included attempting to broker a nuclear deal between the US and Iran during his second presidential term that same year, though talks ran aground.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gestures at supporters making a heart sign with his hands at Planalto Palace after the inauguration ceremony at the National Congress, in Brasilia, on January 1, 2023. (Evaristo Sa/ AFP)

Elected in October to return to the presidency, Lula quickly traveled to Washington last month as a means of demonstrating his alignment with US President Joe Biden. Biden’s special climate envoy John Kerry was also in Brazil’s capital this week to discuss collaboration to protect the Amazon rain forest.

In a statement on Tuesday, US Sen. Ted Cruz noted that the US has already sanctioned the two Iranian warships, and Rio de Janeiro’s port and any Brazilian service providers are now at risk of sanctions.

“The Biden administration is obligated to impose relevant sanctions, reevaluate Brazil’s cooperation with US antiterrorism efforts, and reexamine whether Brazil is maintaining effective antiterrorism measures at its ports,” Cruz wrote.

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