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Brazil’s Romance with France and Iran, a Game of Power and Nukes

French fighter Rafale Recently a major petroleum producing country located in a region recognized for anti-Americanism and fragile democracies completed negotiations on a multi-billion dollar arms deal with nuclear implications. The region is not the Middle East or Asia, but South America and the country is not Syria or North Korea, but Brazil. 

A country determined to reflect its geopolitical potential not only by hosting international sporting competitions but also by creating a modern military industry.

On September 7, the day Brazilians celebrate their independence, President Lula of Brazil and President Sarkozy of France inaugurated the year of French Brazilian cooperation by signing an arms deal. The terms include the manufacture of five submarines (one nuclear) and fifty transport helicopters in Brazil. The deal projected to finish by 2020 will enable Brazil to manufacture nuclear submarines and earn the prestige of a relatively modern military.

Several days after on September 11, the military cooperation between the two countries deepened when President Lula expressed his preference to purchase 36 Rafale fighter jets from France. Brazil outlined its goal to modernize its air force in its National Defense Strategy of 2008 and the French arms manufacturer Rafale seems to be the favorite.

The generous terms of technology transfer in the submarine deal and the potential fighter jet deal will be key in the decision. President Sarkozy further sweetened the fighter jet offer by agreeing to purchase 10 KC-390 transport airplanes from Embraer, the Brazilian airplane manufacturer. Notwithstanding any surprises in the review by the Brazilian Air Force the official announcement of the completed agreement appears to almost be a formality.

In a statement explaining his predilection of the French offer, President Lula referred to a letter written by President Sarkozy to guarantee the transfer all necessary technology to Brazil for the manufacture and repair of the jets.

President Sarkozy attended to President Lula’s concerns personally to secure Rafale its first competitive contract win since 1988. If the deal is completed it will inaugurate a military partnership that will certainly grow as Brazil raises its profile in the region and the world.

The U.S. Congress attempted to outflank the French by offering a similar guarantee of access to U.S. military technology in the fighter jet deal has not appeared to have made any impact. Congressional approval is necessary and the ability to sell military hardware to third countries and access to replacement parts can be affected by the political winds.  Washington regulates where U.S. made technology can go and after U.S. vetoes of Venezuelan purchases of Embraer jets, Brazil seems reluctant to allow trust the U.S

The deal represents a major step for the Brazilian military and industry. It provides a power projection capability that only five of the most powerful countries in the world have and will be a technological leap for domestic industry. Regionally, the modernization of Brazil’s military is following the trend.

Latin American countries have increased their military spending 50 % since 2003 matching the steep rise in incomes from commodity sales. Feelings of insecurity fueled by the progressive militarization of Colombia and President Chavez’s antagonism to U.S. foreign policy in the region have motivated Latin America to arm.

The modernization of Brazil’s military reflects its desire to be a regional leader and compete with the influence of the United States in the region. The current U.S. administration is trapped in two Middle Eastern wars and distracted by the economic crisis.

It has struggled to define clear positions in Latin America on such issues as Colombian military bases and the coup in Honduras. During the recent crises, Brazil has provided strong leadership in the region and has transformed itself into a reference for Latin America. Further, the capabilities will complement Brazil’s efforts to integrate the militaries and economies of Latin America through UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) and provide it advanced capabilities.

While unable to match the U.S. in economic or military might, the arms purchase is an important step forward for President Lula to realize his dream for Brazil to be recognized as a world power.

Brazil has desired a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council for a long time, but its ultimate aim may be slightly more cynical. Addressing the U.N. on September 24 President Lula may have revealed the specter when he announced the exchange of visits between himself and none other than U.S. pariah President Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad’s visit to Brazil, which occurred last month, indirectly accepted the Iranian elections and clearly recognized President Ahmadinejad as the legitimate leader of Iran.

Further, Lula publicly defended Iran’s nuclear program: “I defend for Iran the same rights with respect to nuclear energy that I do for Brazil”. The plan to militarize nuclear energy has already begun and the ability to weaponize it has never been closer for Brazil.

A D.C.-native, Gregory Melus is currently a freelance reporter based in São Paulo, Brazil. He worked on the Obama campaign after serving in a Congressional Office on Capitol Hill for over two years. Greg is trilingual and has lived abroad for years to investigate the controversial conflicts and issues that affect our age first-hand. His experience includes working and volunteering for international aid institutions at the Grameen Bank in Argentina and Al-Najaf University in Palestine. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Greg will be pursuing a JD at American University College of Law in 2010.

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