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Brazil's President To Visit Iran In 'Last Chance' To Avert UN Sanctions

Does Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (left) have any chance of convincing Iran to follow his country's example and abandon its alleged attempts to acquire nuclear weapons?
Does Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (left) have any chance of convincing Iran to follow his country's example and abandon its alleged attempts to acquire nuclear weapons?
A country with an active nuclear program comes under intense international pressure. Many suspect that, despite stated goals of producing nuclear power, a secret weapons program is under way.

While this scenario describes Iran today, it also describes Brazil during the late 1970s and '80s. After opting for cooperation over defiance, the South American country voluntarily ended its nuclear-weapons program and has retained its civilian nuclear industry while raising its diplomatic stature.

Now, as the United States tries to convince permanent members of the UN Security Council of the need for a fourth round of sanctions against Iran over its uranium-enrichment program, nonpermanent member Brazil has emerged as a dissenting voice.

The Debate Over Sanctions

Having voiced support for Brazil's right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva this week set off for Moscow to state his case against further sanctions.

On May 15, Lula is to land in Tehran, where he is expected to urge President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to keep the lines of communication open. After meeting with Lula on May 14, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said this might be Iran's "last chance" for dialogue on the issue.

"Lula has been quite adamant to say that sanctions tend not to work," says Matias Spektor, an international relations expert at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro.

"And that the other problem with sanctions is that they many times are a slippery slope to a wider intervention. Lula is very keen not to see what happened in Iraq happen in Iran today. So the first message is to the West and it's a message of moderation and gaining time to try to negotiate with Tehran."

Of the so-called P5-plus-one group -- the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany -- the United States has already gained the support of France, Britain, and Germany for its draft proposal for a fourth round of sanctions.

Closed-door talks are reportedly going on in New York in an effort to tweak the proposal to the liking of China and Russia, which have key economic interests with Iran. From there the proposal would be presented to the 15-member council as a whole. A U.S. State Department spokesman said on May 13 that the sanctions resolution would be introduced at the United Nations within a "few weeks."

Security Council Politics

For Lula and others, working out a compromise that would avoid further punishment for Iran would represent a high-water mark for Brazilian diplomacy. Notwithstanding its diplomacy toward Iran, Brazil has already become a major player in global politics through the BRIC partnership with developing powers India, Russia, and China. With its growing economic weight, Brazil has long coveted a permanent seat on the Security Council.

Brazil is not alone in its efforts regarding Iran. Turkey, another nonpermanent Security Council member, has also worked to end the nuclear standoff. For Brazil, however, such efforts could have long-term payoffs at the United Nations.

"There is a desire of Brazilian diplomacy -- it's not only the diplomacy of President Lula but it's national [demand] -- for Brazil to be a permanent member of the Security Council," explains Clovis Rossi, a columnist for one of Brazil's leading newspapers, "Folha de Sao Paulo."

Rossi says this Security Council aspiration is a "permanent feature" of Brazilian diplomacy. "But now Brazil is trying to translate its global trade position [to be] a global player in international affairs. That is from my point of view the reason for going to Iran," he says.

Rossi says that when he spoke personally to Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the minister linked the standoff to mutual suspicions between Iran and the West.

"So from [Amorim's] point of view it was a matter simply of trust -- or distrust -- between the two [sides]," Rossi says.

Lula And His Critics

Many would consider that an oversimplification of the issue, however. And some analysts have criticized Lula's visit to Tehran, saying it simply buys time for Iran.

Jaime Daremblum, a Latin America analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Hudson Institute, dismisses any chance of Lula convincing the Iranian president to engage in constructive dialogue on the nuclear issue.

"I think [Lula] is just playing his own game and Ahmadinejad is also playing for the cameras," Daremblum says. "[But] it's very clear that the regime in Iran is not going to make a deal of any sort and they are going to continue their nuclear activities."

Even while Lula tries to mediate the nuclear standoff, he has been criticized for his tepid condemnation of Iran's human rights abuses. In the aftermath of Iran's disputed election last year, Lula compared the government crackdown on the opposition to a confrontation between supporters of rival soccer clubs.

According to Rossi, Brazil's political opposition roundly condemned the soccer comparison, while Lula's political allies offered no support.

What Brazil Can Teach Iran

Nevertheless, Brazil's own nuclear past gives it a unique perspective in the current standoff.

In the 1970s, Brazil invested heavily in an official nuclear program with West German assistance. The program came under strong international pressure, especially from the United States.

Brazil then set up a parallel secret nuclear program, which made major strides toward developing a nuclear weapon. Brazil later called off its weapons program, and in 1988, Brazil's new constitution prohibited the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Spektor of the Getulio Vargas Foundation praises Brazil's decision to end its weapons program, saying it might hold a broader lesson. He says Brazil "progressively realized that it was much better off by relinquishing any ideas of producing a nuclear artifact and binding itself with existing international institutions."

Spektor says this decision "has worked to Brazil's advantage."

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