BRASILIA (Reuters) -- Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva urged his Iranian counterpart to engage in dialogue on nuclear nonproliferation but backed Iran's right to develop a peaceful nuclear program.
Ignoring critics who fear closer ties with Iran could dent Brazil's ambitions on the global diplomatic stage, Lula met with Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Brasilia on November 23 on the first leg of the Iranian leader's South American tour, which also includes stops in Bolivia and Venezuela.
Iran is under international pressure to accept a deal that would allow it to send enriched uranium abroad to be rendered into fuel that would be returned for use in medical facilities in Tehran. Lula offered support for Ahmadinejad while also nudging him to pursue dialogue with the West.
"We recognize Iran's right to develop a peaceful nuclear program in compliance with international accords," Lula said in a prepared speech at a news conference with Ahmadinejad.
The Brazilian leader then turned to his guest and said: "I encourage you to continue engaging interested countries to seek a just and balanced solution on the Iranian nuclear issue."
Western powers agree that Iran has the right to develop a civilian nuclear program, but want restrictions to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon and say it has been caught building nuclear facilities in secret. Iran insists its program is for civilian purposes only.
Officials from Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Russia, and China are urging Iran to reconsider its rejection of a deal drafted by the United Nations that aims to delay Tehran's potential ability to make bombs by divesting the country of most of its enriched uranium.
U.S. President Barack Obama has warned of sanctions against Iran "within weeks" if Tehran fails to accept.
Ahmadinejad, who called Lula his "good friend," said Iran was still open to an agreement but that Western countries had shown no political will to reach a deal.
"We want to reach a fair agreement," Ahmadinejad said, adding that Iran desires a world free of nuclear weapons.
Ahmadinejad, on his first visit to this emerging world economic power, sought to liken Iran's nuclear program to Brazil's, saying it too had faced attempts by Western powers to limit its access to advanced technologies.
Brazil, which has renounced nuclear weapons, is developing its own technology to enrich uranium as part of its nuclear energy program. It is also partnering with France to develop a nuclear-powered submarine.
Opposition politicians lambasted Lula, voicing concern over Iran's nuclear program, its denial of the Holocaust, and human rights abuses. Hundreds of protesters demonstrated in Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia.
The Israeli Federation of Sao Paulo state took out an advertisement in Brazilian newspapers on November 22 showing a picture of a Holocaust victim displaying an identification number tattooed on his forearm.
"Mr. Ahmadinejad, the numbers don't lie," the ad read.
Lula used the occasion to enter the minefield of Middle East politics, defending both the creation of a Palestinian state and Israel's right to exist in security. Careful not to offend his host, Ahmadinejad did not mention Israel.
The meeting followed visits to Brazil in the last two weeks by Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres, who urged Lula to help curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Lula's critics said Brazil, which is actively seeking a permanent seat on the UN security council, had little to gain by cozying up to Ahmadinejad.
Jose Serra, Sao Paulo state governor and the likely opposition candidate in next year's presidential race, said the visit contradicted Brazil's democratic principles.
"One thing is a diplomatic relationship with dictatorships, another is to welcome their leaders in your home," Serra wrote in an opinion piece on November 23.