In recent months there has been a growing interest in the deepening relationship between Brazilian President Inacio Lula da Silva and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Brazil has long been an American ally and analysts are questioning the motives behind Lula’s eagerness in furthering ties with Iran; a long-time US enemy. Understandably, this new friendship has raised concerns among many foreign relations experts and the intelligence community.
But this relationship is not new. In reality, Brazil began economic relations with Iran in the early 90’s when they started trading foodstuffs. It was only in 2003 when both nations started to make energy sector deals that the National Iranian Oil Company granted Brazil’s oil giant Petrobras rights to explore Iran’s offshore oil reserves in the Persian Gulf. Petrobras signed a second, larger exploration deal with Iran in 2004 for $34 million to drill in the Caspian Sea. And just this year, in April, the president of Petrobras announced that, in spite of the current lack of investments in Iran, they plan to keep their offices there. There have been reports that in recent years the Brazilian oil giant has invested some $30 million in oil development; however, test wells have failed to provide commercially viable volumes. This cooperation was made possible through government-owned companies and high-level state-to-state discussions.
Brazilian companies have found ways to circumvent the trade sanctions that the UN Security Council placed on Iran. Using a triangular trade network, Brazilian goods stop in Dubai, and in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), before entering Iran. Sugar and beef are two of the most significant commodities traveling from Brazil to Iran in this fashion. Brazilian-Iranian trade totaled over $1.5 billion in 2007.
In addition to these economic ventures, Brazil and Iran enjoy a close diplomatic relationship. In November 2008, President Lula invited Ahmadinejad to visit Brazil, and Iran invited Brazil to join the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In June 2009, Lula da Silva congratulated his Iranian counterpart on his re-election and expressed his hope for expanded relations between Iran and Brazil, stating, “I believe the visit of the Iranian President to Brazil and my return visit will play a significant role in expansion of ties between the two countries.”
However, what has many US government and intelligence officials worried is a May, 2010 trip Lula took to Tehran where a nuclear fuel swap agreement was signed between Brazil, Turkey and Iran.
For years, the international community has been attempting to curb nuclear proliferation in one of the most volatile regions of the world, the Middle East. Since 2006, there have been four rounds of sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to halt a nuclear program that the U.S., the European Union, and Israel believe is aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons. These sanctions have sharpened political division among world powers, especially when both Turkey and Brazil, non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, have and continue to resist U.S.-led efforts to push for sanctions over Iran’s failure to halt its uranium enrichment program.
Is Lula in Support of a Nuclear Iran?
Brazil’s policy towards Iran’s nuclear program has been to engage in normal relations despite sanctions against Tehran; Brasilia’s stated position is that the International Atomic Energy Agency should resolve the dispute over the program. In September 2007, Lula da Silva said, “Iran has the right to proceed with peaceful nuclear research and should not be punished just because of Western suspicions that it wants to make an atomic bomb. Iran has committed no crime regarding the U.N. guidelines on nuclear weapons.” Then in November 2008, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim stated, “Brazil does not recognize unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran, whether by the United States or the European Union. The Iranian government should fully cooperate with the agency because it is the best way to avoid sanctions.”
In July of last year, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman embarked on a ten-day visit to several Latin American countries, including Brazil. Speaking at a press conference with President Lula da Silva and Celso Amorim, Lieberman insisted that Brazil use its influence to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Lula responded by criticizing Israel’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, stating, “Brazil would like all countries to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and would like to see the Middle East free of nuclear weapons.” In late November 2009, the IAEA issued a warning to Iran for building a second enrichment plant in secret. But Brazil, along with five other countries, abstained. Brazilian IAEA Ambassador Antonio Guerreiro explained the abstention, saying, “the resolution clears the way for sanctions and sanctions will only lead to a hardening of the Iranian position.”
In February 2010, after speculation that Brazil could be involved in direct bilateral talks to provide Iran with high-grade uranium, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said, “at no time in conversations held with Iran was enrichment of Iranian nuclear material discussed.” But Lula was working together with Turkish and Iranian leaders on the deal that was just signed between the three nations.
The Obama administration has been trying to convince Brazil and Turkey for months to support a new packet of UN sanctions against Iran. In fact, on March 3, 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Brasilia for talks aimed at convincing senior Brazilian officials to back new punitive measures against Iran’s nuclear program. Clinton said: “It has been found to be a violation by the International Atomic Energy Agency and by the United Nations Security Council. These are not findings by the US. These are findings by the international community. It is going to be the topic at the United Nations Security Council. So I want to be sure (President Lula) has the same understanding that we do as to how this matter is going to unfold.”
But on June 9, 2010, it was clear Mrs. Clinton had been unsuccessful. A divided United Nations Security Council voted to tighten sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Brazil and Turkey, both non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, and both having a voting history of supporting the US agenda, voted against the measure in a public display of support for Iran, openly snubbing the United States.
The agreement Lula helped broker would require Iran to ship more than 2,500 pounds of its enriched uranium across the border to Turkey. In exchange the Iranians would receive fuel rods containing about 250 pounds of uranium enriched to 20% for use in their low-wattage Tehran Research Reactor, which the regime says will be used for medical purposes. But the Brazil-Turkey deal does not change Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s centrifuges will continue working and the regime’s stockpile of enriched uranium will continue to grow.
In reality, this deal is worse than a nearly identical proposal made by the Obama Administration last fall that was rejected by Iran. First, the amount of uranium that Iran has agreed to ship to Turkey is identical to the amount proposed last fall, except more time has passed and now Iran has a much larger stock, retaining more than enough to make a nuclear weapon. Second, the new deal has an out clause that allows Iran to demand its uranium back at any time. Third, there are no provisions to allow inspectors into Iran’s enrichment facility near Qom. In essence the deal will allow Iran to enrich uranium at a considerably higher level of purity, that is, higher than levels permitted by international law.
Brazil: a Dwindling Friend or Emerging Enemy?
Many analysts are puzzled by Lula’s behavior. Is he being used by Ahmadinejad to advance Iran’s nuclear program and help Tehran gain more presence in Latin America? Perhaps. In fact, in late May 2009, the Israeli news website Ynet obtained a detailed dossier drafted by the Israeli Foreign Ministry on Iran’s activities in South America. The report claimed that Iran had begun building friendships in Latin America as early as 1982. The Foreign Ministry report claimed that particularly “since Ahmadinejad’s rise to power, Tehran has been promoting an aggressive policy aimed at bolstering its ties with Latin American countries with the declared goal of “bringing America to its knees.” So Lula could be serving that purpose though not unknowingly.
It could also be that Lula is the one that could gain by this friendship. He is leaving office in January, 2011. With the Iranian deal he helped broker with Turkey; he has received the world’s attention as a successful negotiator involving major powers such as the United States and Iran. This has raised Brazil’s status as an emerging power and could also serve Lula well in any new endeavor of international relevance at any world body he wishes to pursue. In addition, one of Lula’s goals has been to gain a seat for Brazil as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
As stated, Lula da Silva is a pragmatist but as leader of the Workers Party he is also a man of the left. He has deftly navigated between maintaining a positive relationship with the West while deepening his ties with Iran, Russia and China. This is also the same Lula that was a co-founder along with Fidel Castro of the Forum of Sao Paulo (an organization with a membership that includes many communist and guerilla groups and was formed largely to counter the influence of the US). It is also the same Lula who has chosen for the duration of his presidency to either support or ignore but never to question or counter the policies of his comrade, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Now that Lula only has a year and a half remaining in his presidency, he is more actively pursuing his true ideological tendencies.
In addition, the Iranian deal reveals something extremely worrisome about a new world order. Brazil and Turkey were considered to be more US friendly and have always stood with Washington in its struggles. Turkey is a NATO member and Brazil has emerged as an economic and political power on the world stage. This agreement shows that Lula has come to realize that being at odds with the Obama administration’s agenda brings no real consequences. In essence, many foreign policy experts conclude sadly that there is a loss of respect for the US on the world stage.
“Brazil Oil Giant Petrobras to Keep Iran Office- Estado,” By Tom Murphy. Fox Business, April 12, 2010.
“Building Latin Ties,” Iran Daily, September 4, 2008; “Brazil 2004 Exports to Iran Seen At $1 Billion,” Latin American News Digest, June 18, 2004.
“According to Brazil, There Was No Fraud”, O Estado de Sao Paulo digital, June 15, 2009.
Turkey and Iran: A genuine friendship or a relation of convenience. By Salah Bayaziddi, The Kurdish Globe. June 19, 2010.
“Brazil Doesn’t Recognize Unilateral Sanctions on Iran,” Tehran Times, November 10, 2008.
“Brazil Gives Israel Cold Shoulder Over Iran,” Fars News Agency, July 23, 2009.
“Brazil Not in Talks to Enrich Iran’s Uranium,” Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2010.
“Clinton Seeks to Press Brazil on Iran,” by Matthew Lee, Associated Press, March 3, 2010.
“Iran, Turkey, Brazil, and The Bomb.” The Weekly Standard. May 20, 2010.
“Israel: Ties to South America Aiding Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Ynet, May 25, 2009.
THE AMERICAS REPORT
NANCY MENGES and
LUIS FLEISCHMAN, Editors
The Americas Report is the featured product of the Center for Security Policy‘s Menges Hemispheric Security Project. It features in-depth, original articles on subjects not regularly covered by the American press.
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