Why Can Brazil Play with Nukes While Iran Can’t?

Iran's Nuclear ProgramWashington, intent on wooing Brasília, is prepared to look the other way on the nuclear front. Brazil, with a history of covert nuclear experimentation and construction, has refused IAEA total inspection of its Resende Plant nuclear centrifuge.

Washington adamantly denies that Brasília has plans to join the nuclear club – perhaps due to Brazil’s peacemaking efforts in Haiti.

The Bush administration has offered Iran economic incentives to abandon nuclear technology and development, (a right that Iran legally has under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), threatening that a failure to accept this arrangement will result in sanctions by the UN Security Council.

In recent weeks, Washington has stepped up its aggressive stance toward Iran, threatening it with harsh UN Security Council-mandated sanctions if it does not abandon its alleged nuclear activities.

But last Friday, President Bush offered to drop U.S. objections to Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in exchange for a freeze on Tehran’s nuclear energy program. Iran continues to defend its right to pursue nuclear technology under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

U.S. officials have been claiming that Iran’s civilian program is merely a cover to develop nuclear weapons, but Tehran has denied the accusation, saying that its efforts are solely aimed at generating atomic energy.

Ironically, despite the Bush administration’s bellicose demands that Iran give up its uranium enrichment program, Washington has dismissed any cause for alarm over a somewhat similar nuclear program in Brazil.

Washington’s willingness to suspend disbelief over the more arcane aspects of Brazil’s uranium enrichment perhaps can be attributed to Brasília’s present peacemaking efforts in Haiti – which has been a godsend for the U.S. – and the Bush administration’s eagerness to achieve closer relations with the Latin-American powerhouse.

A Questionable History

Throughout the 1980s, Brazil remained on the UN’s watch list for its covert dealings with West Germany to acquire nuclear technology; meanwhile, it increased its conventional weapons trade with “rogue” nations and evaded international nuclear processing inspections.

Brasília’s allegedly questionable activities have continued since President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva refused to allow a comprehensive inspection of his nation’s nuclear facilities last fall.

He recently finalized the $170 million sale of 24 Super Tucano training and light combat aircraft to Washington’s Latin American nemesis, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Ordinarily Washington would not hesitate to express its strong rancor over such a move, but this proved not to be the case in this instance.

In October 2004, after several months of evasive negotiations, Brazilian officials finally allowed the IAEA to inspect all of its nuclear facilities, except the Resende Plant’s centrifuge.

According to Brazil’s Ministry of Science and Technology, the Resende facility enriches uranium that fuels the nation’s two nuclear power plants, which together provide only 4.3 percent of the nation’s total electricity.

Due to the fact that Brazil is not heavily endowed with oil and natural reserves, its quest for nuclear energy is understandable. But Brazil’s experience with its persistently troubled first nuclear plant, Angra I, has witnessed frequent failures resulting in a number of power outages.

Despite the questionable function of Brazil’s Resende centrifuge, the IAEA agreed to President Lula’s terms to allow inspectors to examine the pipes leading into and out of the centrifuge, but not the facility itself, ostensibly for proprietary reasons.

The IAEA’s refusal to release its findings also has intensified some observers’ suspicions. While the IAEA was expected to announce its conclusions by the end of November 2004, such a report has yet to be made public.

Mark Gwozdecky, director of public information for the IAEA, told COHA, “there has been no announcement about Brazil…[but the IAEA and Brazilian officials] have agreed on an arrangement for verifying that the Resende plant is devoted exclusively to peaceful purposes.”

A Faulty NPT

Although reluctantly cooperative with IAEA inspectors, Brazil remains in full compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which it ratified in 1998.

While the treaty prohibits any country outside the five acknowledged nuclear states (the U.S., the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, France and China) from acquiring or producing nuclear weapons, according to IAEA Director-General Muhammad ElBaradei in a February 2 op-ed published in the Financial Times, “Any country can have full control over enrichment [and] reprocessing activities.”

Yet he deems that production of highly enriched uranium and reprocessed plutonium, which are used to make nuclear weapons as well as for nonmilitary purposes and are possessed by Brazil, as “just too close for comfort.”

Under the latitude provided by the NPT, Brazil’s denial of a thorough inspection of all nuclear sites may be reason enough to suspect that it was interested in developing nuclear weapons technology, but the Bush Administration does not seem particularly worried as of now.

After a fall 2004 visit, former Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that, “the United States has absolutely no concerns about Brazil doing anything with its nuclear program except developing power in a most controlled, responsible manner.”

He confidently stifled critics’ concerns of nuclear weapons development, maintaining, “We know for sure that Brazil is not thinking about nuclear weapons in any sense.”

Although Powell’s determination that Lula is not manufacturing nuclear weapons components as of now is most likely correct, Henry Sokolski, director of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington-based non-profit organization, told COHA that we can “expect Brazil to share its enrichment technology with nations that do harbor nuclear weapons aspirations.”

The Brazilian military, in turn, will have to “reassess the need for nuclear weapons if other nations do go nuclear.” Given the availability of uranium, skilled personnel and enrichment technology, the country is a prime candidate to process and ultimately possess nuclear devices, if it is so intentioned.

How, then, has such a potential danger avoided the intense scrutiny it deserves and most likely would have normally gotten from the international non-proliferation community and certainly by the U.S.?

Coddling Hemispheric Relations

In reality, there seems to be little cause to worry that Brazil has covert plans to join the nuclear club. Lula’s priority is more likely for Brazil to aspire to become the Latin American hegemon as well as attain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

While the recent arms sale to Venezuela has probably hurt Lula’s otherwise beatific status with Washington, he did not mean to compromise his entente with the U.S., which he most recently earned by agreeing to have the Brazilian military lead the UN peacekeeping mission to Haiti.

Lula’s commitment rescued the U.S. from having its embarrassingly contradictory policy of ignoring the legitimacy of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and ousting him by a de facto coup on February 29, 2004.

The U.S. decision to overlook Brazil’s nuclear potential while strictly scrutinizing Iran’s nuclear efforts further exemplifies Washington’s inconsistent foreign policy – particularly its capacity for selective indignation.

In his campaign to make Brazil a more formidable regional player – with its nuclear efforts serving as a viable tool – Lula will try to demonstrate, among other things, that his country is capable of economic growth independent of Washington’s predilections for the region.

For its part, Brazil will continue to forge trade agreements, such as the recent arms sale to Venezuela, regardless of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s portrayal of President Hugo Chávez as a negative factor in the hemisphere.

For now however, it seems the Bush Administration is willing to forgive and forget as it plays along with Lula’s agenda in the name of trying to service an important Latin American relationship.

This analysis was prepared by Sarah Schaffer, COHA Research Associate. Additional research provided by Claudia Patterson, COHA Research Associate.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – www.coha.org – is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email: coha@coha.org.

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