President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s visit to Iran in mid-May is part of Brazil’s wider bid to foster trade and investment with the Middle East—and in the process may provide a useful channel for ameliorating Iran’s face-off with the West.
Fears that warming relations between the two countries will weaken the West’s united front to force an Iranian climb-down on its nuclear policies, and that the visit might strengthen the hand of the hardline mullahs, are baseless.
President Lula has condemned Iran’s failure to abide by the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. When he hosted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in late 2009, he was forthright in expressing concern over Iran’s lack of transparency in dealings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He made it clear that Brazil will only defend Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes if it shows good faith in fulfilling its outstanding commitments.
But Lula has also been a vocal critic of western strategy toward Iran, particularly of the notion advanced by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Iran will only make concessions under duress. As Lula has observed, “pushing Iran against a wall”—even under the guise of “smart” sanctions targeted against the Revolutionary Guard and its finances—will most likely be counterproductive.
Brazil’s approach to Iran therefore should be viewed as an attempt to add an alternative voice to the debate about a region that is increasingly critical to its ambitions as a global trader and player.
In fact, Brazil’s own history of nuclear ambitions provides a constructive argument to those who argue that Iran is simply buying time to complete its secret military program. As with Brazil’s nuclear ambitions during military rule, Iran is spurred by the perverse logic of mistrust and suspicion typical of a highly-strung security environment. This leads to rhetorical excesses such as Tehran`s threats to annihilate Israel and the corresponding rhetoric in Tel Aviv warning of nuclear retribution. Given that it is surrounded by mostly hostile nuclear-capable powers or proxies, Iran’s ties to organizations accused of terrorist activities is explainable—though hardly justifiable—within an asymmetrical warfare frame of mind.
Again, like Brazil in the 1970s, Iran is a dynamic society feeling its way toward modernity. Brazil’s experience of democratic transition and of overcoming the temptation to acquire nuclear arms speaks to the need for perseverance and prudence. Iran is a critical part of any lasting Middle East settlement; improving the West’s relationship with that country is inseparable from the challenge of peace in the region. That’s why, at the request of the Palestinians, Brazil joined other nations in the Annapolis Summit of 2008 as a first step in bringing fresh air and new ideas to what has become a stale negotiating environment. The challenge for all countries concerned with the Middle East is to chart a new direction at a time when the essential elements for an agreement on most issues have long been known but not acted on.
One way forward would be for the IAEA to bring together the Iranians and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, to thrash out the issues. Brazil does not refuse to join a consensus, but is leery of saber rattling that seeks to impose decisions under the threat of sanctions or worse.
Brazil has argued that peace is impossible if some countries are left out. In our situation, a bilateral agreement signed in 1983 on mutual monitoring of nuclear materials was critical to defusing the nuclear rivalry between Brazil and Argentina. It made effective the 1968 Tlatelolco Treaty, declaring Latin America a nuclear weapons free zone, paving the way for the on-going South American economic integration process.
Is there a lesson here for the Middle East? Would all actors in the region buy into comprehensive nuclear disarmament without preconditions, i.e. without seeking to jockey into positions of strategic advantage? I think the answer is yes.
Iran was not the only Middle East country targeted by Brazilian diplomacy. Last year, Lula received visits from the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and he has recently traveled to Israel, Jordan and Palestine. Brazil’s interests in the Middle East have little to do with traditional post-colonial great power politics. It is self-sufficient in oil, and possesses no strategic assets or vulnerabilities in the region. Brazil is getting involved because it considers that effective global peace is tied to stability in the Middle East.
The fact that roughly 17 million Brazilians of Jewish and Arab descent can live in peace ought to stand as a further inspiration to all the nations of the Middle East to end their deadlock.
The fact is that time is no longer on our side. The financial meltdown of 2008 and the ensuing global downturn have underscored what should be obvious: we live in the midst of growing global threats, ranging from climate change and terrorism to transnational crime and intrastate violence. At the same time, old challenges, such as widespread poverty, pandemics and the threat of all-out thermonuclear destruction continue unabated. Yet despite this growing sense of a shared fate, we have not been able to fashion a collective blueprint for joint action.
Be it in the G-20, the BRICs, or during the Doha Round or the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change, Brazil has helped forge coalitions to fight for a more balanced, transparent and effective framework for global governance. Final closure on a Middle East nuclear settlement would signal that yes, we can also move forward on these other critical agendas. The urgency of bringing Iran in from the cold has never been greater.