Iran nuclear fuel swap deal: Is Brazil's Lula now a diplomatic big boy?

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's brokering of the Iran nuclear fuel swap deal appears to show that mid-level players can have a say in the biggest issues of the day. But if the deal ultimately fails, it could come at a cost to his prestige.

Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (c.), his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (l.) and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (r.) wait for the signing of agreement ceremony during the 32nd Meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of G-15 in Tehran. An Iran nuclear fuel swap was brokered by Turkey and Brazil, Monday.

When Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood together Monday, trumpeting the new Iran nuclear fuel swap deal they hashed out with Turkey over the weekend, the Brazilian president wore the face of victory.

Lula, as the president is known, has been slowly carving a bigger role for himself and Brazil on the global stage.

He's argued for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. He's used his clout as leader of the world's future breadbasket and rising regional power to push for a greater voice for the developing countries of the “global south.” And now, just months before he finishes his second and final term in office, he has achieved his greatest diplomatic victory.

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Lula's brokering of the deal appears to show that such mid-level players as Brazil and Turkey can have a say in the biggest issues of the day. But should the deal ultimately fail, as many nations have warned, it could also backfire.

“If a deal was struck and it is successful, it will be a major positive mark in Brazilian diplomacy historically. It is Brazil´s passport into the big boys club of world diplomacy,” says João Augusto de Castro Neves, political analyst with the CAC consulting firm in Brasilia and currently based in Washington. “But we are still not sure, in Brazil or anywhere, of what was reached.”

US remains skeptical

The US has voiced skepticism over the deal.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said the US “acknowledge[s] the efforts that have been made by Turkey and Brazil,” but that “the United States and the international community continue to have serious concerns.”

Iran may have warmed to Brazil because it runs its own peaceful nuclear program and asserts its independence, especially from the US. And in the short-term, the news is likely to give Lula a bounce.

A former labor leader who has competently steered his country through the global financial crisis, he is already one of the most popular presidents on the globe. President Obama called him “the man” recently.

Motives questioned

But some have questioned his motives. In an open letter in The Wall Street Journal by Denis MacShane, a British Labour MP and former minister for Latin America in the Blair administration, summed up the questions many feel about Lula´s embrace of Mr. Ahmadinejad.

“You don't remember me but we met now and then nearly 30 years ago when you were an inspiration to labor movements around the world. Your struggle to create a strong, independent trade union in Brazil helped take your country to its democratic future,” Mr. MacShane wrote. “That is why it is with the most profound sadness that I see you embracing the incarnation of everything that denies human rights, social justice, and all the good that liberation trade unions stood for.”

And he is likely to face more questions, particularly if it turns out that Iran does not follow through on its word, says Mr. Castro Neves.

Some have questioned why Brazil is “punching above its weight” in seeking to put its footprint on the Middle East, he says.

“Brazil puts its credibility on the line, not only for its own nuclear program, but also on major moral issues,” Castro Neves says. “On violation of human rights in Iran, Lula ignored that. And some [are asking], 'Why are we there, when we do not help settle problems in our own backyard?' ”.

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