This Commentary first appeared as an op-ed in the America's Quarterly Policy Journal, Spring 2010
Can Brazil play a significant role in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions? No.
Brazil’s self-perceptions and aspirations as an emerging global power are a key to understanding why the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has chosen this particular moment in time to deepen ties with an Iranian regime that is facing crisis, both at home and abroad.
Brasilia’s actions are chiefly driven by a desire to promote Brazil’s economic and geopolitical interests. The notion advanced by Brazil that its overtures are aimed at reducing instability in the Middle East by facilitating mediation and peace among the region’s conflicting parties has to be considered a distant second priority. In its growing Middle Eastern interactions, whether with Iran or with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, Latin America’s most powerful state is looking primarily after its own interests. There should be no misperceptions about that.
Arguably, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reaped more benefit from his November 2009 visit to Brazil than President Lula. With the Islamic Republic undergoing its most severe domestic crisis since the Islamists came to power in 1979, Ahmadinedad could return home from his overseas trip (which included Bolivia and Venezuela as well as Brazil) with a triumphant declaration that Iran was at the forefront of a shake-up of the global order. Photographs of the Iranian leader next to a smiling Lula, or Hugo Chávez of Venezuela or Bolivia’s Evo Morales, were a tacit answer to the challenges being raised to his legitimacy at home from a broad-based Iranian opposition movement in the streets, parliament and even the mosques.
Looking at the visit from the Iranian opposition’s perspective, Brazil could have certainly picked a better time to lay out the red carpet for Ahmadinejad. At a time when Iran’s vibrant civil society was looking for moral support from the international community, Brazil effectively bestowed on the Iranian regime important diplomatic recognition.
Moreover, Ahmadinejad also won support in Brasilia for his controversial nuclear policies. At a time when Iran’s claim to be pursuing a plan to build civilian nuclear facilities was undercut by the exposure of a second previously undeclared enrichment plant at Qom, Lula’s backing provided a significant moral boost—although it’s doubtful that it had anything to do with the subsequent collapse of the Vienna agreement negotiated with the leading P-5 powers.
Lula’s solidarity may have again been grounded in Brazil’s long-standing strategy of taking a leadership role in the South—particularly as a country that has powerful nuclear potential. But what did Brazil get out the cozy photo-op with Ahmadinejad?
One answer has to do with economics. Trade between the two countries quadrupled from 2002 to around $1.8 billion in 2007 and continues to grow. The largest delegation of Iranian businessmen and officials visited Brazil in May. The possibility of cooperation in science, industry, technology and culture was strengthened by a foreign ministers’ exchange in November 2008.
It may be no coincidence that Iran was one of the most prominent supporters of Brazil’s inclusion in OPEC. Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, Petrobras, began exploration in the Iranian waters of the Persian Gulf in 2003 and the Caspian Sea in 2004. Brazil is looking for markets and evidently sees a rising Iran as inevitable.
The real test may come during Lula’s visit in May to Iran. Tehran is likely to be facing a fourth round of sanctions by the United Nations for its nuclear activities, while at home the political repercussions of the controversial June 2009 presidential elections continue to reverberate.
The Brazilian leader will undoubtedly be hailed by his Islamist hosts as a brave statesman who agrees that it’s time for like-minded states such as theirs to challenge the western domination of the international system. Whether Lula will allow this perception to go unchallenged remains to be seen.
But it should be obvious that this pair of visits has done little to advance the cause of peace and stability in the Middle East. Perhaps quite the opposite. Ordinary Iranians will have to bear the brunt of any new and harsh sanctions imposed as a result of their government’s policy. Even though opinion surveys suggest that a clear majority of the Iranian people support the country’s nuclear program, the surveys also indicate they do not want further international isolation as a result.
During the Iranian presidential election debates in 2009, it was clear that a substantial number of the Iranian political and social elite judge the Ahmadinejad government’s handling of the nuclear case as incompetent. They are likely to see Brazil’s support of Ahmadinejad as a hindrance rather than a help to Iran’s overall long-term national security interests.
However, while the Iranian regime aspires to be a global trend-setter in the realm of politics, Brazil’s interests in its ties with Tehran are overall far more earthly.
On the other side, Tehran needs both economic links to the outside world and foreign investment, and Brazil poses as an attractive economic partner.
The realities of mounting economic ties between Brazil and Iran do not necessarily mean that President Lula’s Middle East policies are devoid of any aspirations to play a genuine mediating role in the region’s conflicts. Brasilia’s diplomatic push into the Middle East fits Lula’s personal ambition to play a more prominent global role.
Still, the reality is that in its interactions with the hard-line regime in Iran, Brazil has proven to be an expedient partner but has yet to prove that it has in any way brought Tehran closer to a settlement of its nuclear dispute with the rest of the world. If anything, Brazilian positions toward the Ahmadinejad government appear to provide fodder for Iranian stalling. Ironically, that may damage any hope that Brazil actually has of playing the kind of geostrategic role that it envisions, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. Brazil’s membership in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) has already given it stature; but its hopes, for example, for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council could suffer from its Iranian gambit.
If that’s the case, Lula may have cause to regret his VIP welcome of the Iranian President.
Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.