Exclusive-Under U.S. pressure, Lula delays Brazil docking of Iran warships -sources
By Gabriel Stargardter and Rodrigo Viga Gaier
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazil bowed to U.S. pressure and declined an Iranian request for two of its warships to dock in Rio de Janeiro at a time when Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was planning his trip to Washington to meet U.S. leader Joe Biden, sources said.
Brazil's decision represents a gesture for closer ties with the Biden administration after U.S.-Brazil relations soured under Lula's far-right predecessor Jair Bolsonaro. The move came despite Lula's longstanding opposition to U.S. sanctions on Tehran, advocating for a neutral foreign policy.
On Jan. 13, Brazil granted permission for the IRIS Makran & IRIS Dena ships to dock in Rio's port during Jan. 23-30, according to a post in the official government gazette.
That window has been scrapped, with the ships now authorized to dock between Feb. 26 and March 3, the Brazil's foreign ministry said.
A U.S. official with direct knowledge of the situation said the prospect of Iranian warships in Rio ahead of Lula's meeting with Biden on Friday "was something unpleasant we wanted to avoid."
"There were a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations about this at many different levels," the official said, adding it was good news that the dates would no longer coincide.
A Brazilian military source confirmed that the federal government, via the foreign ministry, had shifted the dates and blocked the Iranian ships from docking.
"It's true that there was a veto (from the government)," said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The Iranian ships could not come during this period."
A spokesperson for Brazil's foreign ministry said it was a "wrong assumption" to say Washington had pressured Brazil.
"The ships not coming between Jan. 23-30 had nothing to do with us, and then it was rescheduled to Feb. 26-March 3," said the spokesperson. "Nothing to do with the U.S."
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Diplomacy with Iran was one of the highlights of Lula's efforts to bolster Brazil's international standing during his previous presidential mandate.
In 2010, he sought to broker a nuclear deal between Iran and the United States, traveling to Tehran to meet then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Lula recoiled at U.S. sanctions on Iran and has declined to choose sides in the Russia-Ukraine war, saying Brazil is neutral and wants dialogue to reach peace.
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter and Rodrigo Viga Gaier in Rio de Janeiro; Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Editing by Brad Haynes and Marguerita Choy)