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COMMENTARY: Brazil, Iran and the Road to the Security Council

SAO PAULO The attempt by Brazil’s government to participate in the international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program could well be called “A Manual for Candidates to a Permanent Membership of the United Nations Security Council.”

Brazil’s diplomatic efforts with Iran  a country suspected of developing nuclear energy for military purposes  began at a meeting last year between President Barack Obama and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva during the G8+5 summit in L’Aquila, Italy.

According to Robert Gibbs, Obama’s press spokesman, and Brazilian authorities, Obama said he had no objections whatsoever to Lula talking to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Obama suggested using the weight of commercial relations between the two countries to tell the Iranian leader that he should follow Brazil’s example (in Brazil, the ban on nuclear energy for military purposes is enshrined in the Constitution).

Lula and Ahmadinejad met in June 2009, when Obama was still holding out a hand to the ayatollahs. Lula acted according to Obama’s suggestion when he received Ahmadinejad in Brasilia. He acknowledged as everyone does “Iran’s right to pursue a nuclear program with peaceful intentions,” but immediately asked for “respect for the international agreements” and underlined the fact that “this is the road Brazil is following.”

Furthermore, he urged Ahmadinejad “to continue to engage countries interested in finding a fair and balanced solution to Iran’s nuclear question.”

“Engagement” is the key word in this affair. It was used to describe Obama’s new American diplomacy, particularly with regard to Iran, at least until the disputed elections in Iran last summer and the worsening domestic crisis that has ensued.

In Lula’s meeting with Ahmadinejad, the delicate subject of Ahmadinejad’s repeated denials of the Holocaust came up. Lula told his Iranian counterpart that to deny the Holocaust was bad, even for Iran itself. Ahmadinejad replied that he did not deny it, but only criticized what he considered Israel’s “political use” of it. Even so, Lula insisted that he should change his attitude.

“Who else is in a position to say such things to Iran’s president?” asked a top Brazilian diplomat by way of justifying a dialogue that has been sharply criticized by Brazil’s Jewish community, which is emphatically opposed to Lula’s proposed trip to Teheran, scheduled for May.

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Relations between Iran and the countries that are negotiating the nuclear question have deteriorated since Ahmadinejad’s visit to Brazil last year, which came soon after his disputed re-election. One result is the open difference of opinion on Iran between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Lula, or between Lula and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

During his meeting in Berlin with Merkel last December, Lula insisted on the Brazilian government’s traditional position: sanctions, such as those that the United States strongly advocates, lead to nothing; the best way forward is dialogue. The Brazilian president asked for “more patience” in the talks with Iran.

The German Chancellor replied that she was “losing” her patience “with the Iranian leaders after “four years of negotiations in, which no progress was made.” But Brazil insisted on the path of dialogue and began talking with other stakeholders in the Iranian question, such as Turkey, whose foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, recently staked out a similar position. “We want the Middle East to be prosperous and stable, governed by political dialogue and diplomacy,” Davutoglu said after a visit to Teheran. “Iran’s contribution will be very important in bringing this about.”

But Brazil’s government has also begun to criticize, albeit weakly, Iran’s performance on human rights. At first, Lula minimized the seriousness of the incidents that occurred after Ahmadinejad’s re-election and went so far as to compare them to a dispute between football fanatics. This led to a clash with Sarkozy when Lula visited Paris soon after Iran’s post-election crisis began. While Lula didn’t repeat his comparison with a football game, neither did he criticize the repression, unlike Sarkozy, who did so strongly.

Brazil’s current criticisms of Iran, along with a request for dialogue with the opposition, weak as they may be, represent a change of position, which reflects the absolute priority of Brazilian diplomacy: permanent membership of the Security Council. Brazilian officials know that they can achieve this goal only by acting independently but without diverging too far from the positions of the current permanent members. They also know that, except for China, all of them are critics of Iran, and are determined to find a solution to the nuclear question, whether through dialogue or some other means, if “patience is lost,” as Merkel suggested.

Clóvis Rossi is a Columnist for Folha de Sao Paulo and a member of its Editorial Board. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010. www.project-syndicate.org

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