For Brazil to Engage Iran Is Not as Foolish as It Seems

Lula meets Ahmadinejad in Tehran On May 15th, 2010, president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil met with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. The result was a startling announcement by the three countries regarding a proposed nuclear material trade deal between Iran, Turkey, and the Vienna Group (Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China).

The tri-partite talks have since received both praise and criticism, much of it directed at Brazil and president Lula. To some experts, Brazil has ventured out of its depth on the Iran issue, and it is now being accused of being impractical, even immature, for foolishly squeezing its way into the international spotlight without proper cause.

However, it could be alternately argued that Brazil’s participation in the tri-partite talks was not only pragmatic, but also contained the potential of providing a powerful corrective position to the West’s American-dominated, acerbic policy on the nuclear issue and Iran.

Since the Cardoso administration, Brazilian foreign policy has emphasized itself as a nation on the make, driven by a highly sophisticated economy and polity. Brazil has worked to countermand an inequitable development pattern often espoused in the Western Hemisphere.

Brazil is now a welcomed exponent of multilateralism and non-intervention and an advocate of the peaceful resolution of regional and international disputes. Brazil emphasizes national sovereignty and the recognition of conciliation as the cornerstone of international relations and as the bedrock of Brazil’s posture on the world scene.

In the recent past, Brazil has been a major regional player in foreign policy matters, participating in the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) and regional free trade agreements (FTAs) and playing an important role in the Organization of American States (OAS).

However, the Lula administration has ventured to increase Brazil’s international footprint. Brazil’s growing and far more diversified economy has allowed it to forge more ties outside the region.

The organization colloquially known as BRIC is a quartet of mid-level economic powerhouses-Brazil, Russia, India, and China-initially formed ties on an economic basis. It has since held dialogues on a variety of issues, such as the reform of financial institutions, monetary policy, immigration, and a host of environmental issues.

Brazil’s expansive economy and Lula’s international strategies have thrust it into the international arena, with foreign-policy gurus routinely naming it a “potential world power.” The Lula administration has been vigorously following a “South-South” strategy-harnessing connections among developing countries to increase its own capabilities and to enhance the clout of developing nations.

The “South-South” libretto utilizes an increasingly shared political and economic history as well as common synergies among these like-minded countries in order to offer a forum with a wide agenda for international cooperation. Touting this strategy-which is also being followed by other “Southern” countries such as India, South Africa, and Iran – Brazil prefers to emphasis mediation, negotiation, multilateralism, and non-intervention when dealing with international problems-not to be confused with either the non-protesting acceptance of U.S. primacy or total passivity.

Brazil’s Nuclear History

President Lula, in a November 2009 press conference regarding increased Tehran-Brasília cooperation, stated that Iran and Brazil were two countries with an “identical development model.” This is especially evident in their respective nuclear histories.

The Brazilian nuclear weapons program started in the 1960s, when Brazil was the South American leader in nuclear technology research and development, competing only with Argentina in a proxy-Cold War in order to receive software and equipment from Europe and the United States. However, in 1980, Brazil signed the Agreement on the Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy with Argentina.

Thereafter, the two countries abandoned their nuclear weapons’ ambitions and became peaceful nuclear powers. Brazil also became a signatory of the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco (officially called the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean) as well as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Although Brazil ratified the NPT in 1997, it argued that the treaty was discriminatory in favor of countries that already had nuclear weapon capabilities for two reasons: because it does not include their heightened capabilities within its parameters or any precise methods of reducing these capabilities.

Additionally, Brazil argued that the NPT is an infringement on national sovereignty and that bilateral and multilateral agreements would be more pragmatic than the NPT, especially in terms of enforcement. The case in point is that countries with nuclear weapon capabilities have gradually reduced their arsenals via bilateral and multilateral agreements, such as START I and the most recent Russia-U.S. Nuclear Arms Reduction Pact.

The Brazilian Constitution mandates peaceful usage of nuclear power – for energy and for medical research. Brazil currently operates two nuclear plants (Angra I and Angra II) and is building a third (Angra III). It hopes to build five more such units in the next ten years.

Although there continues to be some speculation as to Brazil’s nuclear program and its potential for weapons manufacturing, the country has continued to pledge to enrich its uranium (U-235) to only 3.5%, which is drastically below the level required to fuel an A bomb (a minimum of 90%).

However, Brazil does posses a “breakout capability” – the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons before the world can react – due to its stockpile of uranium that has already been enriched to 3.5%-5%. The United States worries that Brazil, like Iran, may be able to execute a fait accompli.

Brazil’s 2009 nuclear submarine project caused some tension between Washington and Brasília because the program was considered a per se violation of the Treaty of Tlatelolco and ultimately threatened U.S. hegemony in the Americas.

From Brasília to Tehran with Love

Iranian-Brazilian relations, relatively slow in coming, generally have revolved around economic issues. Trade between the two countries currently spans US$ 1.25 billion in sales despite the expansive commercial embargo against Iran engineered by the U.S.-led international community.

Similarly, Iranian-Brazilian nuclear ties are neither recent nor novel. In 1992, an Iranian-Brazilian trade deal outlined a plan for the sale of Brazilian equipment leasing to Iran from Brazil’s lapsed nuclear program. Although this trade deal was eventually halted due to U.S. pressure, it demonstrates the nuclear connection between these two countries.

Noting the historic interest that Brazil has had in Iran, it is neither surprising nor strange that Brazil volunteered to act as a negotiator with Iran on the nuclear issue and that Iran accepted Lula’s offer.

Brazil’s stance on nuclear proliferation is relatively simple: it emphasizes a country’s right to engage in peaceful nuclear programs. Article XXIII of the Brazilian constitution states that “all nuclear activity within the national territory shall only be admitted for peaceful purposes.”

Consequently, it requests that other nations, including Iran, also be allowed to pursue peaceful nuclear programs. Brazil has requested Iran to fully and unequivocally cooperate with the IAEA in order to avoid further sanctions, while supporting its right to engage in a peaceful nuclear program.

At the same time, Brazil does not recognize unilateral sanctions as an effective method of engaging Iran. Brasília abstained from the November 2009 rebuke of Iran’s second enrichment plan by the IAEA because the resolution would only lead to sanctions. The Brazilian representative to the IAEA, Antonio Guerreiro, firmly stated the country’s stance when he argued that sanctions did not work and would only result in hardening Iran’s position and isolating it from the rest of the world.

This would, in turn, lead to an angry and aggressive Iran – a less than ideal result, to say the least. “[D]ialogue is better than confrontation, Guerreiro told O Globo newspaper. President Lula told his Iranian counterpart during his visit to Brasília on November 23, 2009 that Brazil hoped to “continue contacts with increased countries for a just and balanced solution on the nuclear issue.”

The Deal

The nuclear fuel plan accepted by Iran in the May 15th tri-partite meeting was the latest version of the October 2009 UN-backed international proposal to swap Iran’s low enriched uranium for high-enriched nuclear fuel. That deal was proposed by the Vienna Group to ensure that Iran had nuclear fuel for medical and other peaceful purposes, but nevertheless would reduce its bomb-making capacity.

The Brazil-Iran-Turkey initiative, which was presented to the IAEA for approval on Monday, May 24, 2010, outlined a nuclear material exchange between Iran and Turkey. Iran would send 1,200 kg of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) – potential material for nuclear warheads – to Turkey in exchange for fuel rods to be used in Tehran’s medical research reactor.

The deal was received with total skepticism by the West, who focused on the fact that the deal would allow Iran to continue its uranium enrichment. The deal is also seen as another ploy by Tehran to delay and deflect pressure from the West while continuing its program. Furthermore, there is speculation that this deal, like the October 2009 proposal, is bound to fail.

Iran already seems to be backing out of the deal as it faces further sanctions from the UN Security Council (UNSC) draft resolution that has been able to gain the support of China and Russia. The proposed resolution would expand an existing arms embargo, enact measures against Iran’s banking sector, and ban the country from mining uranium and developing ballistic missiles overseas.

China’s UN Ambassador, Li Baodong, stated that “the purpose of sanctions is to bring Iran to the negotiating table,” not to punish Iran and its trade relations. The resolution will enter into voting process sometime this June.

Iran hoped that the recent deal would be a way to avoid sanctions, but if that proves not to be the case, no incentive may exist to persuade it to uphold its end of the bargain. President Ahmadinejad asserted that the UNSC “would have no credit left” in future negotiations if the proposed sanctions were implemented.

Brazil’s UN ambassador, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, stated her country’s firm stance was to not actively consider the draft resolution until the tri-partite arrangement had been given an opportunity to be fully vetted. Brazil undoubtedly hopes that Iran will fulfill the terms of the nuclear exchange deal; however, Brasília has let it be known that it is prepared to revisit the issues if the proposed arrangement eventually breaks down.

The American stance regarding the Iran issue appears to be strong at the UNSC, but less so at home. President Obama, faced with the fragile Iran nuclear deal that could crumble in light of the recent UNSC sanctions resolution, is pressing Congress to grant some leeway in applying proposed U.S. gasoline sanctions against Iran.

Foreign Policy Repercussions for Brazil and Lula

Some international affairs analysts have chided Lula for throwing away Brazil’s hard-earned international political clout by trying to engage Iran, the black sheep, in these nuclear talks. However, the Brazil-Iran talks do more to give legitimacy to Iran than to negatively affect Brazil.

Lula’s efforts demonstrate that Brazil can play a unique role in international affairs. Still, Brazil must be careful and responsible in its strategy of fostering ties with Iran, and it must be especially mindful of Iran’s human rights violations, anti-democratic practices, and terrorist accusations.

Although Brazil is relatively new to the international playing field regarding security issues, South America’s major emerging nation can bring a different perspective to the negotiation table because it understands nations such as Iran. The recent US-Brazil Defense Cooperation Agreement enhances Brazil’s global position, while indicating that Washington is prepared to tolerate Brazil’s acts of independence.

Brazil, which has faced similar pressures regarding its nuclear program from the Western Powers, can empathize with “Southern” countries and may be an excellent resource for future mediation efforts.

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her European Union counterparts have repeatedly warned President Lula about the negative consequences that would result from a Brazil-Iran alliance. Nevertheless, these warnings are viewed by some as greatly exaggerated and unwarranted.

Brazil’s expanding economy firmly connects it to the United States, Argentina, and Germany in the West and to China and India in the East. With billions of dollars involved in such trade between Brazil and many other countries, the threats against it are, practically speaking, just words.

Western Powers, such as the United States, France, and the United Kingdom are concerned by the Brazil-Iran connection because it weakens their ability to create a blanket ban against Iran. However, continuing to engage Iran on diplomatic grounds may not be a foolish move by Lula.

President Obama, during his own campaign for office, emphasized that he would restore diplomatic relations with Iran in order to open lines of communication on nuclear matters. The Brazil-Iran negotiations were neither staunchly pro-Iran nor anti-U.S. Rather, they were a flexing of Brazil’s new found foreign policy muscle, emphasizing diplomacy and multilateral negotiation-exactly what Lula has been able to achieve with Washington’s least favorite pariah nations.

Manasi Raveendran writes for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – The organization is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email:


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