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Why Iran’s Ahmadinejad is warmly welcomed in Brazil

Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – whom US President Barack Obama called 'the most popular politician on earth' – hosted Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today. It is the first visit by an Iranian president.

By Taylor BarnesCorrespondent / November 23, 2009

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shakes hands with Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva Monday in Brasilia.

Andre Penner/AP

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When Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – dubbed by US President Barack Obama “the most popular politician on earth” – hosted Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Brasília today, he was doing what Mr. Obama has taken heat for proposing: engage Iran without preconditions.

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The difference? Mr. da Silva (known as Lula) "engaged" with a publicized series of hand clasps, smiles – and a prolonged embrace that his American counterpart presumably would avoid. (Watch the O Globo video here.)

It's the first visit by an Iranian president to Brazil. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s trip to the world’s fourth largest democracy – part of a five-country tour also slated to include Gambia, Senegal, Venezuela, and Bolivia – comes after Iran sank international hopes that it would follow through on a recent deal to ship most of its enriched uranium out of the country. On his Asia tour, Mr. Obama said Iran would face “consequences” if it did not show good faith.

But in Brazil, the Iranian leader will get a reprieve from Western threats of sanctions. With Lula, Ahmadinejad – and his entourage of businessmen – will discuss opportunities to increase and diversify commerce as well as boost cooperation in nanotechnology, biotechnology, agriculture, and energy, according Brazil’s Foreign Ministry. An Iranian deputy foreign minister said that Tehran hopes to increase trade with Brazil from $2 billion to $15 billion in the field of petrochemicals, agriculture, and medicine, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The trip to Brazil offers Ahmadinejad a chance to change the global narrative, one that's been largely focused on Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"There's a clear pattern of Iranian efforts to reach beyond the traditional global discussions that its been engaged with, because those discussions tend to be about ways to limit Iran’s influence,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of Council of the Americas, a New York consultancy. Mr. Farnsworth testified at a Congressional hearing in October about Iran’s reach into Latin America. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for the Iranian leader to expand [his country's] reach.”

So what’s in it for Brazil? In addition to the potential trade incentives, Brazil may be welcoming Ahmadinejad as part of its own effort to play a role as Middle East peacemaker. This month, Brazil hosted Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres, the first such visit by an Israeli president in 40 years.

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