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Brazil Allows Iranian Navy Task Force Into Port at Rio de Janiero

Tanker refitted as helicopter carrier
The Iranian Navy base ship IRIS Makran (Iranian Navy file image)

Published Feb 28, 2023 10:48 PM by The Maritime Executive

Brazil has allowed a small Iranian Navy task force to enter the port of Rio de Janiero and berth alongside, and multiple citizens photographed the warships' transit into Guanabara Bay. The government's decision to allow entry is a rejection of concerted American pressure to deny access to the sanctioned vessels. 

The base ship IRIS Makran and the frigate IRIS Dena transited into port on Sunday morning, and they are due to leave on March 4 and head for Panama. The visit was originally planned for January 23, but the schedule was pushed back. Acting on a U.S. request, Brazil denied access to the Makran and Dena in early February as they approached the port. At the time, newly-elected President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was preparing to travel to Washington and meet with U.S. President Joe Biden, and allowing Iranian warships into a Brazilian harbor before the meeting would have sent a strong signal. 

"Brazil is a sovereign nation, but we firmly believe those ships should not dock anywhere," said U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Elizabeth Bagley earlier this month. "Those ships facilitated illegal trade and terrorist activities, and have also been sanctioned by the United States."

Brazil's new leader has a past connection to Iranian diplomacy. In 2010, Lula played a brief role as an intermediary in nuclear talks with Tehran. Early that year, he flew to Iran and attempted to convince then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to reach a deal with Western nations over the future of Iran's uranium enrichment program. The talks were not successful, and the following month, the UN Security Council, United States and European Union imposed tighter sanctions on Iran's nuclear sector. 

Today, Iran is more isolated than ever, battered by strict U.S. sanctions on every major sector of its economy. Its military resources are limited, and its navy rarely operates far afield. Makran and Dena were the first Iranian naval vessels ever to enter the Pacific Ocean, and their visit to South America will be another first for the service.

IRIS Dena is an Iranian-built Moudge-class frigate commissioned in 2021. The class is fitted with a 76mm deck gun, a 30mm close-in weapons system, four surface-to-air missiles and four anti-ship missiles. 

IRIS Makran is an unconventional naval vessel, and she ranks among the largest warships in the world. She began her life in 2010 as the Aframax tanker Beta (IMO 9486910), which disappeared off AIS in 2019. Over the next two years, an Iranian shipyard converted her into a "base ship" for helicopter and intelligence-gathering operations, and she reemerged in Iranian Navy service in 2021. She is fitted with a large helicopter pad, an array of signals intelligence and data processing equipment, and ample fuel tank capacity to resupply other Iranian vessels at sea.

The Iranian Navy has other merchant vessel conversions with similiar helideck features under construction, and it expects to bring more into service soon.