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From issue: Trafficking and Transnational Crime (Spring 2010)

Hard Talk

Can Brazil play a significant role in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions?

Yes: Marcel Biato; No: Alex Vatanka

In this issue:
Illustration by Wesley Bedrosian

Drawing from its own experiences, Brazil can offer a new direction.

Marcel Biato

Can Brazil play a significant role in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions?Yes

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s visit to Iran in mid-May is part of Brazil’s wider bid to foster trade and investment with the Middle East—and in the process may provide a useful channel for ameliorating Iran’s face-off with the West.

Fears that warming relations between the two countries will weaken the West’s united front to force an Iranian climb-down on its nuclear policies, and that the visit might strengthen the hand of the hardline mullahs, are baseless.

President Lula has condemned Iran’s failure to abide by the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. When he hosted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in late 2009, he was forthright in expressing concern over Iran’s lack of transparency in dealings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He made it clear that Brazil will only defend Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes if it shows good faith in fulfilling its outstanding commitments.

But Lula has also been a vocal critic of western strategy toward Iran, particularly of the notion advanced by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Iran will only make concessions under duress. As Lula has observed, “pushing Iran against a wall”—even under the guise of “smart” sanctions targeted against the Revolutionary Guard and its finances—will most likely be counterproductive.

Brazil’s approach to Iran therefore should be viewed as an attempt to add an alternative voice to the debate about a region that is increasingly critical to its ambitions as a global trader and player.

In fact, Brazil’s own history of nuclear ambitions provides a constructive argument to those who argue that Iran is simply buying time to complete its secret military program. As with Brazil’s nuclear ambitions during military rule, Iran is spurred by the perverse logic of mistrust and suspicion typical of a highly-strung security environment. This leads to rhetorical excesses such as Tehran`s threats to annihilate Israel and the corresponding rhetoric in Tel Aviv warning of nuclear retribution. Given that it is surrounded by mostly hostile nuclear-capable powers or proxies, Iran’s ties to organizations accused of terrorist activities is explainable—though hardly justifiable—within an asymmetrical warfare frame of mind.

Again, like Brazil in the 1970s, Iran is a dynamic society feeling its way toward modernity. Brazil’s experience of democratic transition and of overcoming the temptation to acquire nuclear arms speaks to the need for perseverance and prudence. Iran is a critical part of any lasting Middle East settlement; improving the West’s relationship with that country is inseparable from the challenge of peace in the region. That’s why, at the request of the Palestinians, Brazil joined other nations in the Annapolis Summit of 2008 as a first step in bringing fresh air and new ideas to what has become a stale negotiating environment. The challenge for all countries concerned with the Middle East is to chart a new direction at a time when the essential elements for an agreement on most issues have long been known but not acted on.

One way forward would be for the IAEA to bring together the Iranians and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, to thrash out the issues. Brazil does not refuse to join a consensus, but is leery of saber rattling that seeks to impose decisions under the threat of sanctions or worse.

Brazil has argued that peace is impossible if some countries are left out. In our situation, a bilateral agreement signed in 1983 on mutual monitoring of nuclear materials was critical to defusing the nuclear rivalry between Brazil and Argentina. It made effective the 1968 Tlatelolco Treaty, declaring Latin America a nuclear weapons free zone, paving the way for the on-going South American economic integration process.

Is there a lesson here for the Middle East? Would all actors in the region buy into comprehensive nuclear disarmament without preconditions, i.e. without seeking to jockey into positions of strategic advantage? I think the answer is yes.

Iran was not the only Middle East country targeted by Brazilian diplomacy. Last year, Lula received visits from the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and he has recently traveled to Israel, Jordan and Palestine. Brazil’s interests in the Middle East have little to do with traditional post-colonial great power politics. It is self-sufficient in oil, and possesses no strategic assets or vulnerabilities in the region. Brazil is getting involved because it considers that effective global peace is tied to stability in the Middle East.

The fact that roughly 17 million Brazilians of Jewish and Arab descent can live in peace ought to stand as a further inspiration to all the nations of the Middle East to end their deadlock.

The fact is that time is no longer on our side. The financial meltdown of 2008 and the ensuing global downturn have underscored what should be obvious: we live in the midst of growing global threats, ranging from climate change and terrorism to transnational crime and intrastate violence. At the same time, old challenges, such as widespread poverty, pandemics and the threat of all-out thermonuclear destruction continue unabated. Yet despite this growing sense of a shared fate, we have not been able to fashion a collective blueprint for joint action.

Be it in the G-20, the BRICs, or during the Doha Round or the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change, Brazil has helped forge coalitions to fight for a more balanced, transparent and effective framework for global governance. Final closure on a Middle East nuclear settlement would signal that yes, we can also move forward on these other critical agendas. The urgency of bringing Iran in from the cold has never been greater.


Brazil’s embrace of the Iranian government will only embolden the regime internationally.

Alex Vatanka

Can Brazil play a significant role in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions?No

Brazil’s self-perceptions and aspirations as an emerging global power are a key to understanding why the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has chosen this particular moment in time to deepen ties with an Iranian regime that is facing crisis, both at home and abroad.

Brasilia’s actions are chiefly driven by a desire to promote Brazil’s economic and geopolitical interests. The notion advanced by Brazil that its overtures are aimed at reducing instability in the Middle East by facilitating mediation and peace among the region’s conflicting parties has to be considered a distant second priority. In its growing Middle Eastern interactions, whether with Iran or with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, Latin America’s most powerful state is looking primarily after its own interests. There should be no misperceptions about that.

Arguably, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reaped more benefit from his November 2009 visit to Brazil than President Lula. With the Islamic Republic undergoing its most severe domestic crisis since the Islamists came to power in 1979, Ahmadinedad could return home from his overseas trip (which included Bolivia and Venezuela as well as Brazil) with a triumphant declaration that Iran was at the forefront of a shake-up of the global order. Photographs of the Iranian leader next to a smiling Lula, or Hugo Chávez of Venezuela or Bolivia’s Evo Morales, were a tacit answer to the challenges being raised to his legitimacy at home from a broad-based Iranian opposition movement in the streets, parliament and even the mosques.

Looking at the visit from the Iranian opposition’s perspective, Brazil could have certainly picked a better time to lay out the red carpet for Ahmadinejad. At a time when Iran’s vibrant civil society was looking for moral support from the international community, Brazil effectively bestowed on the Iranian regime important diplomatic recognition.

Moreover, Ahmadinejad also won support in Brasilia for his controversial nuclear policies. At a time when Iran’s claim to be pursuing a plan to build civilian nuclear facilities was undercut by the exposure of a second previously undeclared enrichment plant at Qom, Lula’s backing provided a significant moral boost—although it’s doubtful that it had anything to do with the subsequent collapse of the Vienna agreement negotiated with the leading P-5 powers.

Lula’s solidarity may have again been grounded in Brazil’s long-standing strategy of taking a leadership role in the South—particularly as a country that has powerful nuclear potential. But what did Brazil get out the cozy photo-op with Ahmadinejad?

One answer has to do with economics. Trade between the two countries quadrupled from 2002 to around $1.8 billion in 2007 and continues to grow. The largest delegation of Iranian businessmen and officials visited Brazil in May. The possibility of cooperation in science, industry, technology and culture was strengthened by a foreign ministers’ exchange in November 2008.

It may be no coincidence that Iran was one of the most prominent supporters of Brazil’s inclusion in OPEC. Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, Petrobras, began exploration in the Iranian waters of the Persian Gulf in 2003 and the Caspian Sea in 2004. Brazil is looking for markets and evidently sees a rising Iran as inevitable.

The real test may come during Lula’s visit in May to Iran. Tehran is likely to be facing a fourth round of sanctions by the United Nations for its nuclear activities, while at home the political repercussions of the controversial June 2009 presidential elections continue to reverberate.

The Brazilian leader will undoubtedly be hailed by his Islamist hosts as a brave statesman who agrees that it’s time for like-minded states such as theirs to challenge the western domination of the international system. Whether Lula will allow this perception to go unchallenged remains to be seen.

But it should be obvious that this pair of visits has done little to advance the cause of peace and stability in the Middle East. Perhaps quite the opposite. Ordinary Iranians will have to bear the brunt of any new and harsh sanctions imposed as a result of their government’s policy. Even though opinion surveys suggest that a clear majority of the Iranian people support the country’s nuclear program, the surveys also indicate they do not want further international isolation as a result.

During the Iranian presidential election debates in 2009, it was clear that a substantial number of the Iranian political and social elite judge the Ahmadinejad government’s handling of the nuclear case as incompetent. They are likely to see Brazil’s support of Ahmadinejad as a hindrance rather than a help to Iran’s overall long-term national security interests.

However, while the Iranian regime aspires to be a global trend-setter in the realm of politics, Brazil’s interests in its ties with Tehran are overall far more earthly.

On the other side, Tehran needs both economic links to the outside world and foreign investment, and Brazil poses as an attractive economic partner.

The realities of mounting economic ties between Brazil and Iran do not necessarily mean that President Lula’s Middle East policies are devoid of any aspirations to play a genuine mediating role in the region’s conflicts. Brasilia’s diplomatic push into the Middle East fits Lula’s personal ambition to play a more prominent global role.

Still, the reality is that in its interactions with the hard-line regime in Iran, Brazil has proven to be an expedient partner but has yet to prove that it has in any way brought Tehran closer to a settlement of its nuclear dispute with the rest of the world. If anything, Brazilian positions toward the Ahmadinejad government appear to provide fodder for Iranian stalling. Ironically, that may damage any hope that Brazil actually has of playing the kind of geostrategic role that it envisions, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. Brazil’s membership in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) has already given it stature; but its hopes, for example, for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council could suffer from its Iranian gambit.

If that’s the case, Lula may have cause to regret his VIP welcome of the Iranian President.



 
 

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