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.
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.
But Brazil’s Middle East policy is eclectic by American standards. When he hosted Israel's Mr. Peres, Lula discussed increased economic and defense cooperation. On the other hand, Brazil is the rare major Western power to publicly defend Iran’s development of a nuclear program – for peaceful purposes. And when speaking with Mr. Abbas in the northeastern city of Salvador last week, Lula declared that Israeli settlement expansion into the West Bank must stop immediately.
Were Brazil-Iran relations just economic, Farnsworth says, there would be no need for a polemical visit by the Iranian head of state – they could just swap ministers and businessmen.
Though sovereign nations can invite whomever they please, “it’s unnecessary. There’s no compelling reason why the president of Brazil has to have a visit from the president of Iran other than to say, ‘I can’,” Farnsworth says. He notes that the timing of the visit is “perfectly awful,” since it comes as other international powers are trying to ramp up pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.
Even if Lula is looking for a negotiator role in the Middle East, Ahmadinejad, in a televised interview with the Brazilian media conglomerate O Globo, seemed to be hoping for more than a mediator. His responses to questions posed in English were then translated into Portuguese subtitles:
“The world needs a new economic order. Iran and Brazil have independent positions in relation to the international situation. … The two can work together to help create a new international order.“
The US has not been pleased by Ahmadinejad’s recent thrusts into its diplomatic backyard. Since Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005, Iran has opened new embassies in Colombia, Nicaragua, Chile, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Bolivia – and added ones to Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Venezuela, according to the Washington Post.
But Ahmadinejad’s visit doesn’t come totally from the geopolitical left field.
Brazil hosts a significant Shiite Muslim population in the states of São Paulo and Paraná. While gays, Jews, Christians, and Holocaust survivors protested against his visit Sunday on Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema beach, a counter-display of support upon Ahmadinejad’s arrival made for an even rarer sight in Brazil: Women and girls in headscarves and men waving Iranian and Brazilian flags, chanting the state guest’s name. (Watch the O Globo video here.)