Brazil's triumph on Iran shortlived

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leveled an indirect diplomatic blow at Brazil yesterday when she told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.N. Security Council’s permanent members had agreed upon a draft of sanctions against Iran.

Just two days earlier, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had successfully brokered a deal in Tehran that he believed would provide breathing room for further negotiations. The three-way agreement between Brazil, Iran and Turkey calls for Iran to send 1,200 kilograms of lightly enriched (3.5 percent) uranium to Turkey in exchange for 120 kgs of more highly enriched (20 percent) fuel rods, significantly reducing its stockpile.

The news was greeted in Brazil with banner headlines and a ripple of national pride.

Lula has long sought to be a middleman between Iran and the West, studiously avoiding criticism of the Iranian regime — most notably after the violence that followed last year’s election — and brushing aside heavy criticism that Brazil was betraying its democratic values by supporting a dictatorial regime. Most recently, Lula made no mention of the five anti-government activists executed May 9 by Iran.

The media here at least seemed to forgive him for those perceived slights, as he was praised in editorials and columns in major newspapers that often criticize him. The Estado de Sao Paulo paper’s editorial page headlined the main editorial yesterday “Lula’s Feat,” adding that “unless the future belies it, Lula’s tenacity has triumphed.”

But there was criticism from abroad as early as Monday, when Assistant Secretary of State Phillip J. Crowley called the agreement “just another version of what Iran has said in public statements in recent months, and yet failed actually to come forward and address our concerns.”

Brazil fought back today, as foreign minister Celso Amorim called upon the Security Council’s permanent members and Germany (the so-called P5+1) to give the Iranians time to comply with an agreement, which “can be considered a passport for a negotiated, peaceful solution.”

“We put the ball into the area,” he told reporters in Brasilia. “But the P5+1 has to make the goal.” He noted it was the first time Iran had signed a written agreement on nuclear energy.

Matias Spektor, a Brazilian visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the key to the American reaction was that the Brazilian and Turkish-brokered deal failed to include any component requiring Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, which has long been a prime American concern. (Amorim, in fact, said that the issue had not even come up in negotiations.)

“This is precisely the kind of thing the Security Council need to move forward decisively,” he said.

But, he added, it was too early to tell what the end result would be. According to the agreement, Iran must supply the International Atomic Energy Agency with details of how it will comply with the agreement within a week. “Provided Iran does not back out, then it’s not clear to me that these sanctions will be voted now,” he said. “I think the international community and the G5 will wait and see what happens.”

No one, not even Brazil, has declared that the agreement would resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff. But the Americans and others have noted that the terms are even weaker than the agreement the agency reached with Iran last year. That agreement also called for Iran to give up 1,200 kgs of lightly-enriched uranium, which at the time that represented most of Iran’s supply. The U.S. believes Iran has continued to enrich uranium over the past year.

The most surprising aspect of Clinton’s announcement was that China had signed on to the agreement. China, which relies on Iran for oil imports, had been the most reluctant permanent Security Council member on sanctions. Though Brazil is a non-permanent member of the Security Council and can make executing sanctions difficult, the country had been relying on the Chinese to pressure the other members into continued negotiations.

The euphoria of yesterday, which looked for a while like the diplomatic equivalent of Rio de Janeiro’s winning the 2016 Olympic games last October, is over. But at the very least, it seemed to offer a justification for some for Brazil’s efforts to maintain a dialogue with Iran. Lula has come out looking more like a peacemaker (albeit a lightweight or even naive one, in some views) rather than an unforgivable defender of a repressive regime.

“If in 10 days time we look back and think this was a mistake, fair enough,” said Spektor. “What else could we expect from a country that has no past experience in world politics? But one of the things this event shows is that Brazil is now beginning to speak up and participate in leagues that before were just out of reach.”