Brazil visit to Iran: 'last chance' before new round of sanctions?

Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visits Tehran this weekend in what both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and a senior US State Department official have characterized as the 'last chance' before a new round of sanctions on Iran.

Alexander Natruskin/Reuters
Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva reviews the guard of honor on his arrival for an official visit in Moscow's Vnukovo airport, Thursday. Mr. Lula visits Iran this weekend.

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Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visits Tehran this weekend in what a US official has called "perhaps the last big shot at engagement" with the Islamic Republic before the UN Security Council applies fresh sanctions against Iran for its refusal to suspend its nuclear program.

The Brazilian president will meet with senior Iranian officials Sunday in a bid to still pursue a diplomatic solution to settle international concerns on the intent of Iran's nuclear program, reports Reuters. He will be joined in Tehran by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he welcomes diplomatic mediation by Brazil and Turkey, which each hold rotating seats on the UN Security Council, and that the reason Iran didn't carry out an earlier proposal to trade some of its low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel was because of a lack of trust in the West, according to Bloomberg.

While US officials publicly stress that they support Brazil's initiative, they express little hope that it will be a game-changer.

"It's not that we've given up on engagement. We just remain skeptical that Iran is going to move on its own absent some additional pressure," a senior US State Department official told Reuters.

Members of the Obama administration have accused Iran of merely stalling for time. If Brazil and Turkey see no breakthroughs soon, the Obama administration hopes that Mr. Lula and Mr. Erdogan will be more disposed toward this next round of sanctions, according to Reuters.

But Lula may continue to oppose that route. He is in Moscow on Friday to discuss his Iran mediation with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who himself paid a rare visit to the Middle East this past week and met with Erdogan in Ankara. Brazil's state news agency said that Lula is seeking Russia's commitment to not impose sanctions on Iran, according to the Financial Times.

Medvedev, however, appears on board with the US. "I hope that the Brazilian president will succeed," Medvedev said Friday at the Kremlin, according to Agence France-Presse. "This may be the last chance before sanctions are adopted in the UN Security Council."

In an interview with the Financial Times, US Ambassador to Brazil Thomas Shannon said it was "very positive" that Brazil was stepping up to the world diplomatic stage, but that “as Brazil becomes more assertive globally and begins to assert its influence, we are going to bump into Brazil on new issues and in new places – such as Iran, the Middle East, Haiti.”

Lula warmly hosted Ahmadinejad in Brasília in a visit in November, which was greeted both by protests and a displays of support for the Iranian president, The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time. Even if Lula is looking to be a negotiator in the Middle East, Ahmadinejad, in a November 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:

"Iran and Brazil ... can work together to help create a new international order," Ahmadinejad then said.

Brazil's interest in engaging Iran is likely not just for the chance to earn diplomatic kudos. Bloomberg says that Brazilian business executives in oil, construction, and agriculture will go to Tehran with Lula. Bilateral trade with Iran already has more than doubled – to $1.2 billion – since Lula came into office in 2003. Lula might use the visit to offer Iran loans to increase food imports, said Brazilian presidential spokesman Marcelo Baumbach.

But Lula's drive for engagement with Iran could backfire at home.

In a Foreign Policy op-ed, called "Lula's Tehran Misadventure," the director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars argues that Lula's attempt to make "a sort of victory lap" at the end of his presidency – he will step down from two consecutive terms in January – could "surely be remembered as Lula's crowning achievement" but that it just as likely could backfire.

A member of Lula's own Workers' Party spoke to me privately of his apprehension about Brazil's rapprochement with the Iranian regime, which he sees as a foreign-policy "exaggeration."

In Brazil, several nongovernmental organizations have protested Lula's weekend trip, according to the Brazilian daily O Globo.

"We're not against the approximation with Iran, but we demand that Lula raises the question of human rights at the negotiation table," Flávio Rassekh, an Iranian immigrant and leader of the Frente pela Liberdade no Irã (Front for Freedom in Iran), told O Globo. "We need to make clear that Brazil does not overlook the abuses committed by the government of Tehran."


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