Brazil’s Nuclear Diplomacy and Its Quest for a New International Politics

On May 18 Brazilian President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan negotiated with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regarding Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium. The success of the negotiations was hailed internationally, sealing Brazil’s designation as a rising global power in what many are calling a new multi-polar world. However, this new wave of south-to-south solidarity also challenges what once was Washington’s unipolar stranglehold on global politics.

Samantha Eyler Reid

On May 23, just four days after proposing a fourth round of sanctions against Iran in the United Nations Security Council, President Obama speaking to an audience at West Point, championed his “new” foreign policy “rooted in diplomatic engagement and international alliances.” The proposed sanctions came only one day after Brazilian President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva’s elated return from Tehran, where he revived a defunct confidence-building proposal for Iran to move most of its enriched uranium out of the country. Both Brazil and Turkey, holding temporary seats on the UN Security Council, have irritated the United States by insisting that diplomatic rather coercive measures can succeed in deterring Iran from building nuclear weapons.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had warned Lula that his intervention would go nowhere, predicting “no serious response from the Iranians until the Security Council acts”. But Lula and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan forged ahead with negotiations with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over his country’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, estimated at 2.5 tons, double the amount necessary to increase enrichment and create a nuclear weapon. Iran insists that it maintains its nuclear program for peaceful domestic energy production. But the United States has long accused the rebellious country of holding more sinister intentions and has already pushed through three rounds of economic sanctions in the Security Council.

Famous for his smooth negotiating style after years as a trade unionist, Lula convinced Ahmadinejad to accept a version of a U.S.-engineered deal that Iran had rebuffed last October. On May 24 Iran formally filed its acceptance of the agreement to the UN’s nuclear regulatory body, the AIEA, promising to export 58% of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey for storage in exchange for a smaller amount of higher-enriched uranium for peaceful use in a medical research reactor. The press in Brazil and analysts around the globe hailed the accord as Lula’s most significant intervention in foreign affairs, sealing Brazil’s designation as a global power. This positive response rides on a wave of enthusiasm for Brazil’s role in promoting a multi-polar world, especially its strong support for south-to-south solidarity. It also challenges what once was Washington’s unipolar stranglehold on global politics.

Back in the United States, the reaction to Lula’s success ranged from dismissive to patronizing to sardonic. “Has Brazil become Iran’s ‘useful idiot’?” asked The Washington Post prior to the Tehran agreement. Columnist Charles Krauthammer called the deal a “ruse,” Brazil’s attempt at “ingratiating [itself] with America’s rising adversaries” sparked by President Obama’s conciliatory foreign policy. Secretary Clinton accused Brazil and Turkey of intentionally trying to “dissipate” the pressure the United States. had been attempting to bolster against Iran.

“All the points considered essential by the international community were addressed by Iran in the agreement,” Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim declared. The deal leaves intact Iran’s right, as a signatory of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium for its civilian nuclear industry, a right that Lula insists remains inviolable. But Obama, himself a proponent of more intensive use of nuclear energy, rushed back to the Security Council anyway and charged that the deal would not prevent Iran from continuing with its program. Brazil contends that new sanctions wouldn’t do so, either: “You can’t try to create confidence by making threats,” said Amorim.

The subtext to U.S. negativity over the accord has less to do with nuclear non-proliferation than with a rising sense of panic over the realignment in global power relations. “This is not just an America in decline,” mourns Krauthammer. “This is an America in retreat — accepting, ratifying and declaring its decline, and inviting rising powers to fill the vacuum.”

“They feel for the first time in the world that developing countries are able to defend their rights in the world arena without resorting to the major powers and that is very hard for them,” says Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s energy program. Indeed, rather than agreeing to the deal despite Secretary Clinton's scepticism, Iran probably did so because of it: Ahmadinejad wants to align himself with developing powers pressuring the United States to enhance the legitimacy of international institutions, which currently give lopsided weight to the interests of a few superpowers. For its part, Brazil wants to make clear that Washington should no longer expect docility from Latin America on foreign affairs.

The power shift is more than just rhetorical. Lula spent the week prior to the Tehran visit in Russia, where he repeatedly emphasized the need for reform of the international collective security regime to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. In concrete terms, this means increasing the number of both permanent and rotating seats on the Security Council, a request that Brazil’s Ambassador Maria Viotti re-filed in the UN last September. Critics have long charged that the five veto-wielding superpowers that permanently sit on the Council use their power to give a sheen of international legitimacy to their own destabilizing foreign policies. These arguments only intensified after 2003, when former president George W. Bush launched a pre-emptive war against Iraq after a series of sanctions brought before the Council.

São Paulo’s Folha reports that Lula’s zeal for reform prefaces a bid to succeed Ban Ki-Moon as the U.N. Secretary General. Lula will finish his second presidential term on January 1, 2011. Rumors abound that he has already confirmed support for his bid from national leaders Sarkozy in France, Zapatero in Spain, and Sócrates in Portugal.

Some see Lula’s quest for reform as hopelessly quixotic. Reform would require a two-thirds majority among the members of the General Assembly and unanimous consent from all countries currently sitting on the Council. When the most recent reform proposal reached the General Assembly in 2005, the United States dug in its heels. “We will work with you to achieve enlargement of the Security Council,” said a State Department spokesperson, “But only in the right way and at the right time.”

Meanwhile, Brazil is receiving support in its effort to reinvent international politics from unlikely quarters among other temporary members of the Security Council. The Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada publicly praised the tripartite nuclear deal. Like Brazil, Japan hopes to receive a permanent seat if reform ever happens. Last week the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki visited Mexico City. While remaining mum on the question of new sanctions, Mexico stands to benefit, along with the rest of Latin America, if Brazil can follow through on UN reform. Lebanon also stands by Turkey and Brazil against new sanctions.

Lula, speaking at a union rally in Sao Paulo, said that he and Turkey's leader “accomplished more in 18 hours of conversation” with the Iranians than the Americans had managed during the last three decades — a “demonstration that dialogue is the best way of resolving conflicts.”

Back in the United States, Obama promises to buttress “those old alliances that have served us so well” and “shape stronger international standards and institutions,” but Latin Americans are still uncertain about what those words portend for their future relationship with Washington.


Samantha Eyler Reid is a NACLA Research Associate.

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