Lula’s Tehran Misadventure

In the last days of his tenure, the Brazilian president is reaching for his crowning foreign-policy glory. Will it go horribly, horribly wrong?


Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva heads to Tehran this week, a sort of victory lap for what he hopes will be a monumental piece of foreign policy: bringing Iran’s leadership to the nuclear negotiating table. Last week, Tehran agreed "in principle" to Brazil and Turkey’s offer to facilitate talks on an agreement proposed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last October. Should that initiative succeed, it will surely be remembered as Lula’s crowning achievement.

But many are beginning to wonder if Lula can truly be the darling of the West while also wooing the East. Lula’s administration has pitched the talks to Iran not as a way to come clean but as a way to prove that it is hiding nothing with its peaceful nuclear program — and the United States and Europe are understandably skeptical. Back home, questions have arisen about the Brazilian leader’s motivation for injecting himself and his country in such a daring initiative in the first place. It’s certainly not about domestic politics; if anything, cozying up to Iran is losing Lula points at home. As his presidential term comes to an end, Lula’s move might be more about building a legacy on the world stage than much of anything else. And it may well backfire.

Given Brazil’s recent rise as a regional and a global player, it might come as a surprise that foreign policy and Iran policy in particular have been a source of criticism rather than praise for Lula’s government back at home. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Brasilia last November was greeted with street protests and strong condemnation by the media and Lula’s political opponents. José Serra, then São Paulo’s governor and now a leading presidential candidate, criticized the president for embracing a dictator reminiscent of the military regime Lula and Serra — themselves victims of political persecution — fought to dislodge from power a quarter-century ago.

Subsequent Brazilian visits to Tehran had a similar effect. The image of a smiling Brazilian minister of commerce offering the national soccer team’s revered yellow jersey to Ahmadinejad in Tehran last month caused discomfort even among Lula’s allies. Clovis Rossi, a columnist and early supporter of Lula’s foreign policy, wrote that the Brazilian soccer jersey is now "covered with blood" from Iranian dissidents killed by the Islamic government. A member of Lula’s own Workers’ Party spoke to me privately of his apprehension about Brazil’s rapprochement with the Iranian regime, which he sees as a foreign-policy "exaggeration."

Leading names of Brazil’s foreign-policy community have offered equally harsh assessments. In an interview with Brazil’s UOL news, veteran diplomat Rubens Ricupero, a historian and former ambassador to Washington, described Brazil’s self-initiated overture to Iran as symptomatic of a foreign policy driven by "the constant search for the spotlight."

Lula, however, remains undaunted by criticism, which he views as uninformed and undeserved attacks from those too blind to see that he is shepherding Brazil’s emergence as a global power. On April 27, he dispatched Foreign Minister Celso Amorim to Tehran to prepare for his own visit on May 15. Before meeting with his Iranian counterparts, Amorim restated Brazil’s opposition to a new round of sanctions sponsored by the U.N. Security Council, of which Brazil is a non permanent member.

"Call us naive, but I think those who believe in everything the U.S. intelligence service says are much more naive. Look at the case of Iraq," Amorim said in an interview with the AFP. After meeting Ahmadinejad, Brazil’s foreign minister urged Tehran to come clean with the IAEA and prove to the world what it has apparently demonstrated to Brazil: that its nuclear program is strictly peaceful and consistent with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Iran might have liked that rhetoric, but it’s far from clear that Tehran will do much more to deliver on its "in principle" agreement for talks. The country has rejected similar deals in the recent past after welcoming them "in principle." U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed Brazil and Turkey’s efforts, accusing Tehran of stalling and trying to gain time instead of addressing the central question about the nature of its nuclear program at the IAEA.

Against this backdrop, Lula’s visit to Iran at the end of this week has become a highly risky venture. The rewards of a successful trip would be great. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders would shower praise on Lula’s peacemaking abilities. Obama in particular might note that Brazil’s actions since the late 1980s, when it renounced nuclear weapons, have made the country a leader in the fight against nuclear proliferation. Surely, Lula’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize would not be far behind.

It is at least equally likely, however, that Lula’s trip to Tehran will be a flop after producing a few hopeful headlines. In this scenario, Brazil’s Persian aspirations will be undone by the realities of Iranian politics, of which Brazilians have limited knowledge or understanding. Lula will be accused of lending his hard-earned reputation, and Brazil’s good name, to undoing the Islamic Republic’s growing international isolation, as it continues to resist calls to comply with its NPT obligations. He will be remembered as the Brazilian president who allowed well-deserved praise to go to his head — inspiring him to gamble his country’s interests and prestige on an ill-fated venture. Both Lula and his country would be diminished by the episode.

U.S. and European officials have already signaled to their Brazilian counterparts that a Lula visit to Tehran that fails to produce results could cause major damage to Brazil’s relations with its traditional allies. Fearful of this outcome, which he sees as inevitable, former Foreign Minister Luis Felipe Lampreia warned in an op-ed for O Globo that the upcoming visit "will cause incalculable material and political losses" and could raise suspicions about Brazil’s own nuclear program — all in pursuit of a "completely unnecessary" initiative. Added Lampreia, "It is like the person who crosses the street on purpose to step on a banana peel on the opposite sidewalk." Lula is about to test out the wisdom of that approach.

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