Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—one of Time Magazine’s newly-named most influential people in the world—will travel to Iran next week for what have become regular meetings with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The leaders are sure to discuss the month-long UN conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that began yesterday in New York, their countries’ growing commercial relationship, and ways that Brazil’s emergent roll as an arbiter between Iran and the West can advance their mutual interests.
Overall, Lula’s efforts to expand Brazil’s clout on the world stage have been characterized by refusals to choose sides in historic disputes or submit to pressure from major powers like the United States. His approach to international relations seems rooted in efforts to engage all parties as equals, while avoiding tough subjects like Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Russian authoritarianism or Cuba’s human rights record. The hope might be that by maintaining neutrality in the short term—while simultaneously expanding trade and investment ties to its less savory allies—Brazil’s access to and presumed influence over key foreign leaders will make it a channel through which to conduct sensitive diplomatic negotiations.
What has this strategy achieved? Well, it has definitely generated a lot of news. From Israel to Iran, India to China, Cuba to Russia, Lula’s globetrotting has produced intense media coverage and the belief in many circles that Brazil is a rising power. It’s resistance to U.S. pressure to support stronger sanctions against Iran—even during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Brazil in March—certainly drew the ire of the U.S. foreign policy community and made him a hero among those who disagree with the U.S. approach.
But, what about the bigger picture?
Have the Iranians halted their nuclear programs or submitted to unfettered international inspections? No. Has Cuba improved its human rights record? Não. Israeli-Palestinian peace? Keep dreaming. If Lula really wants the world to believe that next week’s abraços with an Iranian tyrant are motivated by anything other than pure national self interest, it’s time for him to actually achieve something for the greater good.
Here’s one idea.
Remember those three American hikers from Berkeley who were arrested in July 2009 when they foolhardily strayed into Iranian territory while hiking in Kurdistan? Their names are Shane Bauer, 27, Joshua Fattal, 27, and Sarah Shourd, 31 and the State Department reported last week that two of them are ill in prison in Tehran. It’s time for Lula to bring them home.
This is a very real possibility for a few reasons...
First, at least in public, the Iranian leadership has, at times, seemed to soften its rhetoric around the hikers. Ahmadinejad himself even said he'd like to see them released, but then shifted the responsibility for that decision to Iran’s judiciary.
Second, Lula’s whirlwind global tour de force will grind to a halt soon as presidential elections approach back home. This would give him an irrefutable, resounding victory overseas. What better way to very publicly demonstrate Lula's growing clout among world leaders than to free three prisoners whose release the U.S. government has been seeking for almost a year? It would get widespread, instantaneous press coverage and present Lula (and Brazil) as all-American heroes.
Third, it would earn Lula the gratitude of the United States—but even more importantly, from Brazil's perspective, it would make it much more difficult for the U.S. government to publicly admonish Lula for his too-close-for-comfort diplomatic and commercial relationships with unscrupulous characters like the Iranian leadership.
Why would the Iranians grant Brazil’s request?
For one, the Iranians have always known that the hikers are just hikers, but decided to turn them into political pawns in an effort to force concessions from the United States. It must be clear to them by this point that the U.S. is not prepared to make concessions on their behalf, so what value is there in keeping them detained?
Of course, the Iranian leadership would never want to be perceived as making a concession to the United States by releasing the hikers without a reciprocal move by the U.S. government. But, a similar, almost insignificant gesture to their Brazilian ally—which would also give them a convenient alternative to the permanent detention of the American hikers—is an entirely different story. Even better, granting their release to the Brazilian president after having repeatedly denied incessant requests by U.S. officials for precisely the same thing would allow them the infantile satisfaction of having slighted the U.S. yet again.
And lastly, it would allow the Iranians to continue to play two allies (the U.S. and Brazil) against each other. Their release would make it even more difficult for U.S. officials to criticize Brazil’s engagement policy—a strategy that plays right into the Iranians’ hands.
The families of the three young Americans detained in Iran sat down with Secretary of State Clinton last Wednesday at the State Department to again raise their children’s plight. They also had meetings later in the week with White House officials. The U.S government has again begun to rachet up pressure on the Iranian regime.
Maybe they should write a letter to the Palácio do Planalto as well. You never know…
Matthew Aho is Manager of Policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas and Associate Editor at Americas Quarterly.