Brazil Key to Curbing Iran’s Influence

Iran is a pariah regime. Claiming only peaceful purposes for its nuclear program, Tehran is processing uranium in quantities that say otherwise. In 2006, the U.N. Security Council first imposed sanctions while offering incentives for the regime to come clean. It hasn’t. Is an Iran armed with nuclear weapons inevitable?

The United States answers with an emphatic No, even as the current sanctions have run their course. What to do next is no easy matter. China and especially Russia may be warming to more-vigorous pressures on Tehran. On the other hand, Brazil and Turkey — elected members without veto power in the Security Council — just proclaimed their opposition to imposing new sanctions.

Diplomatic Overtures

Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005, Iran has opened embassies in Colombia, Nicaragua, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay and Bolivia. It already had diplomatic relations with Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela. Since 2007, Iranian imports from Latin America have increased by nearly 250 percent ($2.5 billion). Exports to the region have also expanded but totaled less than $340 million. Brazil is Iran’s top trading partner in Latin America, followed closely by Argentina and Ecuador.

Venezuela and Brazil represent two different approaches to Iran: one ideological, the other pragmatic. Tehran is courting both in an all-out diplomatic initiative against the isolation that the United States in particular seeks. Iran revels in unnerving Washington in its own backyard.

Hugo Chávez and Ahmadinejad have a close personal relationship based on their anti-Americanism. After meeting Chávez, Ahmadinejad said: “I feel I have met a brother and trench mate.” Chávez returned the compliment, calling the Iranian a “gladiator of the anti-imperialist struggle.” As like-minded leaders won elections in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, Tehran has benefitted from Chávez’s extended influence.

For Brazil, Iran is an altogether different matter. For almost eight years, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has conducted an assertive foreign policy based on South-South relations, a metaphor for emerging powers that include Iran. Lula has forged close relations with India and South Africa, all in a bid for greater influence in international affairs.

Brazil is perhaps indulging in wishful thinking when it claims that it could be an interlocutor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Other than Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iraqi Shiites, Iran has few friends in the Middle East, though its ties to Syria and Hamas may give it some influence. On the U.N. Security Council until 2011, Brazil will surely make its voice heard as the Iranian nuclear issue becomes more prominent.

Raising its sights beyond the Americas is fine, only Brazil hasn’t yet successfully mediated a conflict in its own region. The Brazilian Foreign Ministry, for example, hasn’t figured out how to contain Chávez and his allies in Latin America. Still, Lula’s wariness of Chavismo is well known and the hopes are that Brazil’s burgeoning ties with Iran put a dent in Chávez’s influence there.

All the same, it was jarring to hear Lula compare Ahmadinejad’s brutal repression of the opposition after the June 12 fraudulent election to street clashes between fans of rival soccer clubs in Rio de Janeiro. How quickly the Brazilian president forgot his own struggles against the military dictatorship (1964-1985)!

Under Barack Obama, American anxiety about Iranian activities in Latin America have continued. In January 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared that he was more concerned about Iranian “subversive activity” in South America than with the Russian navy’s maneuvers in the region. In September, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau announced that his office had opened investigations on Iran’s purported use of Venezuelan and Panamanian banks to bypass international sanctions.

Calculated Provocation

Ties between Iran and Venezuela are understandably the most worrisome. Chávez enjoys riling Washington and his closeness to Ahmadinejad’s Iran is a calculated provocation. Last year, Caracas announced that Russia would help Venezuela develop nuclear energy and a few weeks later that Tehran is helping in locating its uranium reserves.

Since 2000, Russia, China, India and Brazil have emerged as international players. The United States should see Brazil more like it does the other three emerging powers. But it’s harder: Brazil is in the Americas. Let’s hope that the United States and Brazil do better this time than they did in the 1990s with the Free Trade of the Americas.

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