For Brazilian president Lula da Silva, mediating between the United States and Iran seemed like a win-win proposition. American officials were moving slowly in pursuit of a tough sanctions resolution at the United Nations Security Council, and Iran’s nuclear program was racing forward. If Lula tried to forge a new agreement and failed, well, at least he had demonstrated his commitment to nuclear security and peaceful diplomacy. If Lula succeeded, he would garner international acclaim and improve Brazil’s chances of gaining a permanent seat on the Security Council. Perhaps Lula would even be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize.
As it turned out, he did succeed in helping Tehran launch a diplomatic ploy based on a meaningless uranium-swap deal. Unfortunately for Lula, while he was smiling and raising arms triumphantly with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Obama administration was finally making progress in drafting a new sanctions resolution supported by Russia and China. Lula appeared to be siding with Iran against the United States. This impression was reinforced by the widely seen picture of him celebrating the uranium deal with Ahmadinejad and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
It was always going to be hard to pass a muscular sanctions resolution at the Security Council, since Russia and China each wield veto power. The Lula-blessed agreement will make it even harder. According to Moscow-based journalist Vladimir Radyuhin, Russia “quietly orchestrated” that agreement. The Kremlin is now using it to further complicate the U.S. sanctions push, despite claiming to support America’s new draft resolution. There is good reason to doubt just how strong that resolution really is. For example, as Bill Gertz and Eli Lake have reported in the Washington Times, it would allow Russia to deliver highly sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Iranian armed forces. Moscow also says it will finish helping Iran build the massive Bushehr nuclear plant. Meanwhile, the president of China’s largest oil firm, state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation, has announced that his company will move forward with its lucrative energy projects in the Islamic Republic.
Regardless of whether the U.S.-backed resolution ultimately passes, Lula has done significant damage to his reputation. It is one thing to promote greater “South-South” dialogue among developing countries; it is quite another to publicly embrace the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, a regime that slaughters democracy activists in the streets and threatens to ignite a second Holocaust. In general, Lula’s foreign policy seems to be imbued with a growing anti-American streak. He has consistently defended the two most anti-U.S. governments in the Western Hemisphere, Cuba and Venezuela, while maintaining warm relations with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. After the removal of radical Honduran president Manuel Zelaya—an aspiring autocrat and Chávez crony—in June 2009, Lula became a leading force in the pro-Zelaya choir at the Organization of American States. He even offered Zelaya asylum inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa.
Given Brazil’s broader foreign policy record, Lula’s actions don’t necessarily come as a huge surprise. While the South American giant was a staunch U.S. ally in the decades immediately following World War II, it has a recent history of flexing its diplomatic muscles in ways that irk Washington. During the 1980s, Brazilian officials established the Rio Group (whose original members also included Argentina and Venezuela) partly to help resolve the ongoing Cold War armed conflicts in Central America. Yet rather than serve as an objective mediator, the Rio Group worked to shield the Marxist Nicaraguan Sandinistas and Salvadoran FMLN guerrillas from international pressure, while frustrating some of the pro-democracy initiatives of the Reagan administration.
Now Brazil seems to be playing the same game again. Whatever his motivations, Lula has become useful to the Iranian dictatorship. He leads one of the most important developing countries on the planet, a country that is part of the IBSA bloc (India, Brazil, South Africa), the BRIC bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and the BASIC bloc (Brazil, South Africa, India, China). Indeed, Brazil’s growing economic and diplomatic clout has led many to describe it as a potential global power. The question is: How will Brazil use its burgeoning influence? Will it seek to promote democracy and market-led development? Or will it continue to apologize for dictators and rogue states?
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.