Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim told reporters Wednesday that Brazil wanted two or three months' more negotiation with Iran.
"We still have some possibility of coming to an agreement ... but that may require a lot of flexibility on both sides," he said, with Clinton present. "We will not simply bow down to the evolving consensus if we do not agree."
The US has watched the budding relationship between Brazil and Iran with concern, developing as the US seeks further United Nations sanctions against Iran's nuclear program. Brazil continues to support Iran’s policies, arguing that a diplomatic approach is more effective than sanctions. Since Brazil currently holds one of the rotating seats on the UN Security Council, the US is worried the Latin American nation could get in the way of new sanctions.
Brazil is just one of several countries, such as China, that the US is lobbying. But getting Brazil on board would be particularly helpful to the US effort, as Iran has long held the position that only the US and some European nations support a tougher stance against Tehran.
“Brazil is a country Iran would care about,” says Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University in New York. “The most effective use of sanctions in this particular case is to send a message to Iran that it is isolated. … Getting countries potentially sympathetic to Iran to join in and join a resolution does get Iran’s attention.”
Brazil won't 'bow down'
After meeting in Brasilia with Foreign Minister Celso Amorim on Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton probably knows this better than anyone. Mr. Amorim said Wednesday that Brazil will not "bow down" to international pressure.
Clinton also met with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who had earlier warned against "pushing" Iran into a corner.
Still, Clinton argued that Iran will not negotiate "in good faith" without sanctions.
“Once the international community speaks in unison around a resolution, then the Iranians will talk and begin to negotiate,” she told reporters. “We want to get to negotiations; we just think that the best path is through the Security Council.”
The meeting came as the US is circulating a draft of a new sanctions proposal aimed at Iran's banking, shipping, and insurance businesses.
Clinton’s trip is part of week-long tour of South and Central America. Before arriving in Brazil, Clinton attended the inauguration of Uruguay's new President José Mujica, visited Buenos Aires to discuss the standoff between Argentina and Britain over the latter’s drilling for oil in near the disputed Falkland Islands, and toured earthquake-ravaged Chile.
The trip, scheduled before the earthquake in Chile, is touted as one of solidarity. “It is a clear message from the US government to say to Latin America, ‘As a region, we are interested in your problems,’ ” says Roberto Izurieta, a Latin America expert at George Washington University,
But the centerpiece of the trip is the stop in Brazil. The trip comes ahead of a scheduled visit by President da Silva to Iran this spring, which follows Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's trip to Brazil last year.
Why Brazil supports Iran
Brazil’s has been outspoken about its belief that Iran should be able pursue a peaceful nuclear program. President da Silva, at a regional summit in Mexico last week, said that "peace in the world does not mean isolating someone." He repeated that sentiment today to reporters at an event in the capital Brasilia, ahead of his talks with Clinton.
The US wants a much tougher stance even though Brazil, without a permanent seat on the Security Council, wields less clout than China, for example. “I think it’s more a credibility of issue, to be able to show a broad base of support,” says Mr. Izurieta.
Ahead of her trip to Brasilia, Clinton voiced concerns that Iran’s program is not entirely peaceful: "It has been found to be in violation by the International Atomic Energy Agency and by the United Nations Security Council," she said to reporters. "These are not findings by the United States. These are findings by the international community."
"And the discussion about Iran's nuclear program is in the United Nations," she said. "It is going to be the topic of the United Nations Security Council. So I want to be sure [Lula da Silva] has the same understanding that we do as to how this matter is going to unfold."
Clinton's visit was preceded by William Burns, who serves as undersecretary of state for political affairs and is promoting the sanctions. In a blog he spoke of the status of Brazil as a clear “emerging power” and of the importance of the relationship between the US and Brazil.
Recent strain on relationship
But the relationship has been strained by several issues, including US bases in Colombia and the ouster of former president Manuel Zelaya in Honduras who ended up sneaking back into the country and camping out in the Brazilian embassy. The US sought an end to the conflict, regardless of Mr. Zelaya’s return to power, while Brazil stood firmly to its position that the conflict ended only if Zelaya was returned to the presidency before presidential elections took place.
But the most tensions have emerged over Iran, especially after Mr. Ahmadinejad was warmly welcomed in Brazil in November. Critics of da Silva, who is often referred to as Lula, in Brazil and the US, have called Brazil’s position an attempt to flex its muscle and show that it does not have to bow to US or European desires.
“This is a way for countries, wherever they may be, to say: ‘We do not want to be taken for granted, we have our own views on some of these issues,’” says Mr. Sick.
Brazil also has its own domestic nuclear program, which Sick says might explain its support for Iran’s.
"I want for Iran the same thing I want for Brazil: to use the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes," Lula said ahead of his talks with Clinton. "If Iran agrees with that, Iran will have the support of Brazil."
How much of a strain this puts on the US-Brazilian relationship remains to be seen. “It will definitely color Washington’s perceptions about whether Brazil and the United States are true partners or in fact emerging rivals. I think it’s a bit of both, and the challenge going forward will be to manage relations in a way to build on points of agreement while still dealing with disagreements in a manner that doesn't infect the overall relationship,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a consultancy based in New York.
Given the growing consensus against Iran’s program, Mr. Farnsworth adds: “Now is a curious time for Brazil to be taking such a high profile position in support of the Iranian regime.”