Brazil: Iran's best friend in the West?

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.”

Brazil’s ambition to become a go-to mediator in international disputes is also at work. “Brazil wants to position itself on the edges of the Western system, between the Western powers and non-Western powers, and go back and forth between the two to develop an international mediator position that allows them to support their own national interests,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a specialist on Brazil and India who is a visiting professor of international relations at the University of Sao Paulo. “The Brazilians are using the Iran thing to make a point and say ‘we’re not always with the West. Brazil’s support doesn’t come for free.’”

And then there is Lula’s personal diplomatic style: he has always maintained friendly relationships with the most disparate of international leaders. His seeming warmth toward Ahmadinejad mirrors, somewhat oddly, his close relationship with President George W. Bush when Bush was far from the most beloved person on the world scene. Obama famously called Lula “my man … the most popular politician in the world,” as Lula maintained close ties with the Castros in Cuba and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Despite Lula's charms, his folksy style sometimes seems at odds with the seriousness of the occasion. His declaration that the “peace virus” has been with him since he was in his “mother’s womb” did not go over well during a visit the Middle East. He recently outlined for reporters his plan to confront Ahmadinejad about nuclear weapons. “I will speak with him eye-to-eye,” Lula said, “and if he says he is going to build them, he’s going to have to face the consequences.” The statement had odd echoes of George W. Bush’s 2001 meeting with Vladimir Putin, where Bush “looked the man in the eye” and “was able to get a sense of his soul.”

But Ricardo Sennes, a director of Prospectiva Internacional, a consultancy in Sao Paulo, notes that Lula’s and Brazil’s international actions often do not match their words. “There’s a lot of verbosity. If you look at it concretely, they are much more conservative that they seem in their speeches.”

One example is the continued meetings of the BRIC countries — emerging giants Brazil, Russia, India and China — who met this week in Brasilia. They continue to discuss strategic interests, and their development banks signed a cooperation agreement this week, and Brazil also signed a separate “Plan of Joint Action” with the Chinese. But the cooperation is still at a very early stage, and it is unclear just how many interests the countries have in common.

It said a lot that despite the dispute over Iran, and despite the flurry of activity in Brasilia, the most concrete deal Brazil signed this week was a defense accord on technology transfer, cooperation and training with an old partner: the United States.

Editor's note: This piece has been updated to correct the spelling of Oliver Stuenkel.