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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.

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.