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Brazil: Iran's best friend in the West?

The war in Iraq, Brazil's nuclear history and its desire to be an international mediator explain the two disparate countries’ relationship.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talks during a meeting with Brazil's Lower House President Michel Temer and Senate President Jose Sarney at the Brazilian National Congress in Brasilia, Nov. 23, 2009. (Roberto Jayme/Reuters)

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Brazil and Iran are hardly the tightest of allies, but an outside observer would be forgiven for thinking differently after this week.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington urging U.S. President Barack Obama to hold back on sanctions against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and company. Meanwhile Lula’s minister of development, Miguel Jorge, was in Tehran, presenting a smiling Ahmadinejad with an official Brazilian soccer jersey. The image was splashed across newspapers and websites here.

Elite political commentators — who are often critical of Lula’s close relations with controversial regimes — had their usual field day. “Countries have always done business with whatever countries suit their interests,” wrote Clovis Rossi, a columnist for the nationally distributed Folha de Sao Paulo. “But what is not tolerable is to cozy up with those who capture, torture and mistreat the opposition, who brutally limit public liberties … . The Brazilian government’s gesture covered the green-and-yellow team jersey with blood.”

Brazil has become, in some ways, Iran’s best remaining friend in the Western world. In May, much to the dismay of Jewish groups as well a large chunk of the educated elite, Lula will visit Tehran.

Analysts, and Lula himself, have given a wide variety of reasons to explain the two disparate countries’ relationship.

Perhaps the most obvious is how the situation echoes what happened in the lead-up to the Iraq War. When then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made his famous February 2003 speech stating the case for war against Iraq, Lula had just begun his first term. “I already saw a war in Iraq happen because of chemical weapons whose existence society was led to believe in, and to this day do not exist,” Lula recently told reporters. “I do not want that to occur with Iran.”

Then there is Brazil’s own history, which has striking parallels with Iran’s present predicament. The United States strongly opposed Brazilian efforts to develop nuclear technology in the 1970s, which led to a secret program. “Brazil’s lesson from that period is that international pressure will produce the opposite of the intended effects,” said Matias Spektor, coordinator of the Center for the Study of International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. “Rather than kill the program, it will accelerate the program. Facing a hostile world community, they will want to have a weapon to deter any potential interventions.”

Brazilian government officials have noted that other members of the U.N. Security Council — including China, a permanent member, and Turkey, which like Brazil holds a rotating seat — also oppose sanctions on Iran. Brazil's policy is clear, Lula’s top adviser on international relations, Marco Aurelio Garcia, told reporters: “We don’t want Iran to be involved in the production of nuclear arms, we want Iran to have the right to produce nuclear energy specifically for peaceful goals.”