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Nuclear Issues Expected to Top Brazilian President's Tehran Visit

  • Michael Bowman

Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (r) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Brazil (2009 photo)

Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (r) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Brazil (2009 photo)

Iran's nuclear program is expected to be the focus of a trip to Tehran by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Saturday's scheduled visit follows last year's trip to Brazil by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - the first-ever by an Iranian leader. The two countries would seem to have little in common, other than presidents who share an aversion to U.S. clout in world affairs.

In what some observers see as a high-risk, high-reward gamble, President Lula hopes to succeed where the international community has failed: ending Tehran's nuclear stand-off with the UN's nuclear body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"It is not wise to push Iran into a corner," said President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. "It is wise to establish negotiations. I have said publicly that I want the same for Iran that I want for Brazil - to use the development of nuclear energy for peaceful ends."

By engaging Iran, the left-of-center, secular democrat is pairing himself with the leader of an autocratic theocracy. Despite enormous ideological differences, Presidents Lula and Ahmadinejad share a disdain for the preeminence of major industrialized nations in world affairs, particularly at the United Nations. President Ahmadinejad puts it this way:

"The [U.N.] Security Council needs fundamental change," said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "For 60 years, the Security Council has failed to establish global security, and the reason is mainly because of veto power, which gives certain nations a monopoly on power."

Brazil has rebuffed U.S. efforts to tighten sanctions on Iran. Nearing the end of his term, President Lula is aiming for a crowning achievement that will cement his legacy and solidify Brazil's image as a rising world power, according to Paulo Sotero, who directs the Brazilian Institute at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center.

"He believes that Brazil can contribute to resolving - by negotiation, in peace - the most difficult issue in the international agenda right now," said Paulo Sotero. "I think President Lula would get recognition [if successful], and Brazil, which has risen in the international arena as a reasonably important player, would be recognized even more as a player."

Convincing Iran to work in good faith with the IAEA would also bolster arguments that rising nations like Brazil should enjoy equal footing at the U.N. Security Council, a post-World War II creation whose power structure is outdated in the eyes of many nations. But President Lula's gambit has major risks, according to Sotero.

"The alternative scenario is that Ahmadinejad and the Iranian regime will just use President Lula's visit to show that they are not isolated internationally," he said. "Instead of Brazil becoming more relevant, Brazil will diminish itself, and President Lula could also suffer in terms of his image."

Civil rights activists protested Mr. Ahmadinejad's trip to Brazil last year, and blasted Mr. Lula for welcoming the Iranian leader. But Alex Vatanka, a Middle East analyst for Jane's Information Group, sees little political risk for President Lula by engaging Iran.

"President Lula has set the bar pretty low, to be honest," said Alex Vatanka. "He has basically come out and said, 'The Iranians have to say to us that they are not going to pursue the weapons option when it comes to their nuclear program.' Well, the Iranians have been saying this all along. So if you measure in that context, we can already assume that it will be a successful trip. But if we change the question and ask if President Lula go to Tehran and make the Iranians realize that they have to cease [uranium] enrichment today, well, that is not going to happen."

Even so, Vatanka says Mr. Lula's outreach to Iran could prove useful if done in concert with other nations.

"Having other people from Moscow, Beijing, go to Tehran and convince them that this is not just a fight between the U.S. and Iran, that there serious international concerns overall - that might just change more minds in Tehran and, collectively, at the end of the process they might decide that they have to give in," he said.

U.S. officials say they welcome Brazil's engagement with Iran to the extent that President Lula insists on Tehran's full compliance with the IAEA.

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