Last month, as newly elected Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva was preparing to visit President Joe Biden at the White House, a crisis loomed over U.S.-Brazil bilateral relations: Two Iranian warships were heading to Brazil, where they intended to pay an official visit. The administration publicly expressed displeasure at the visit and Lula, a seasoned politician beginning a third presidential mandate, declined the ships permission to dock. Why mar an important meeting centered on condemning their right-wing populist nemeses, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, promoting a robust progressive agenda focused on fighting climate change, and demonstrating American support for Brazil’s aspirations to become a global power?
But having pocketed important U.S. commitments, Lula then turned around and greenlit the Iranian ships’ visit. The ships docked in Rio de Janeiro on February 26 for an unprecedented one-week stay.
This should be a huge embarrassment for Brazil. Instead, it’s the U.S. that is in a tight spot. Lula earned a successful meeting with Biden by tricking the president. And Brazil is getting away with it. Lula deliberately embarrassed Biden, making America look weak in the region at a moment when regional and global adversaries are challenging its leadership across the Western Hemisphere. China, Iran, and Russia, all eager to diminish America’s standing and influence in the region, are taking notice.
Lula has much to gain by standing up to America. He can burnish his credentials as a prominent leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, wresting that mantle away from his lesser regional competitors—Venezuela’s Maduro, Colombia’s Petro, and the Fernández duo in Argentina.* He can stoke feelings of national pride and bank on resentment for the “imperio del norte,” the Northern Empire, as many refer to America in the region. And he can forge a foreign policy of engagement with countries, like Iran, that seek to displace America’s influence in the region in favor of a multipolar world dominated by competing powers like Russia and China.
Tehran too greatly benefits from the visit. For decades, it has aspired to play a role in the Western Hemisphere, chiefly through soft power influence operations and by cementing strategic relationships with anti-American regimes such as Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. And while its forays into Venezuela have yielded Tehran both a gateway to and a forward operating base into Latin America, making strides with countries traditionally within the sphere of U.S. political, military, and economic influence has been much more difficult.
The Iranian navy tried once before, in 2021, to reach South America’s shore. That ended in failure due to American pressure. This time, pressure did not work. Nor is the visit just a port call. Iranian crews have warmly welcomed an official delegation of their hosts from the Brazilian navy and the foreign ministry on board the IRIN Dena, an Iranian-made frigate commissioned in 2021, for a lavish dinner to celebrate 120 years of diplomatic relationships between the two countries.
The presence of two Iranian warships at Brazil’s iconic waterfront city is also meant to warn both the U.S. and Israel. For years, Iran has begrudged America’s regional presence and its role as the gendarme of the Gulf. Iran’s intended message is clear: We can poke you in your backyard, much like you poke us in ours. Iran’s puny blue water fleet is currently no match for the U.S. But establishing bilateral relations with other navies around the world will help Iran expand its capabilities.
Besides, the visit is a harbinger of renewed warm relations between Brasilia and Tehran. During Lula’s previous presidency, he bonded with then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was Lula (alongside Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) who sought to undermine U.S. efforts to get a new U.N. Security Council Resolution against Iran’s nuclear violations in the spring 2010, by trying to revive a deal Iran had already rejected months before. Trade soared between the two countries. Iran hopes Lula 2023 will be a better version of Lula 2010. The early signs, at least from Tehran’s viewpoint, are promising.
In short, there is both great symbolism and concrete promise in Iran’s flag flying a stone’s throw away from Copacabana beach. It has caused a diplomatic row between Washington and Brasilia, the ramifications of which go beyond the visit: Brazil, an aspiring global power, has slighted the U.S. president to accommodate the Iranian navy. It opens new opportunities for Iran to cooperate with Latin America’s largest market. It creates the possibility of strengthening the club of rising powers who resent America’s dominance in the world.
The Biden administration cannot treat this visit as if it was of minor strategic importance. It likely does not wish to jeopardize the U.S.-Brazil bilateral agenda, but the two Iranian ships are under U.S. sanctions, and the U.S. very publicly requested that their visit be canceled.
Beyond assessing the cost of defiance and the lack of consequences, the U.S. should consider the impact that a selective application of its sanctions will have on how Latin America’s governments perceive the U.S. Last year, the U.S. (rightfully) arm twisted the Argentinian government into grounding a Venezuelan-Iranian cargo aircraft that landed in Buenos Aires. Washington has also been sanctioning senior politicians in the region—including three former presidents and a sitting vice-president—on corruption grounds. By pressuring Argentina to seize a plane while letting Brazil welcome the Iranian navy, and by sanctioning corrupt politicians in some countries but not in others, the White House is sending a message of political inconsistency, one some may read to mean that defiance beats compliance.
To disabuse this notion, the Biden administration should therefore consider several options from its sanctions’ toolkit. First, it can pressure Brazilian companies at the port of Rio to deny fuel and other supplies to the Iranian ships, as initially happened in Argentina. Back in June 2022, an Iranian-Venezuelan plane was not able to refuel but was initially allowed to leave. However, when it took off, with just barely enough fuel to reach nearby Montevideo’s airport, in Uruguay, Uruguayan authorities denied permission to land and closed their airspace. The plane had to return to Buenos Aires, where it has been parked since. Beyond this measure, the U.S. Department of Justice can initiate the same procedure to seize the ships that it used, in July 2022, against the very same plane. Once the plane was no longer able to leave due to lack of fuel, the U.S. was able to initiate a warrant for seizure and ensure the plane would never leave Argentina, even if its crew was eventually allowed to return home.
Washington can also consider punitive measures against the Brazilian authorities involved in allowing the Iranian ships to dock. It can consider sanctioning port authorities for providing material support to sanctioned Iranian entities. And it can target tug boating companies that helped bring the Iranian ships into port.
After Brazil, Iran’s navy task force will continue its voyage in the region, likely seeking to cross the Panama Canal. Arm-twisting Panama after nothing happened to Brazil is not in the cards. Besides, If Brazil faces no adverse consequences, more missions will return to build on this initial success.
The president must let the region know that Washington cannot be defied cost-free. Or the next time, our warnings will be met with derision, rather than defiance alone.
Correction, March 6: This article initially and incorrectly referred to the “Hernandez duo” in Argentina.