Lula's nuclear mission to Iran

The Brazilian president is hoping to find common ground and negotiate a solution.

    Lula's Iran visit is part of a last-ditch effort to end the nuclear impasse [Ricardo Stuckert/PR]

    Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, the Brazilian president, is famously known as a man who has spent his entire life overcoming difficulty.

    He rose up from a shoeshine boy with an alcoholic father who abandoned him as a young child to become president of what is now one of the world's great emerging powers. He spent much of his early life being told "you can't", and much of the second half of his life showing people with his actions, "yes, I can".

    Many aspects about Lula - and his diplomatic world-view - circle back to that storyline of his life. Including those of Saturday and Sunday in Tehran when he meets Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his Iranian counterpart, in what many are calling a last-ditch effort to broker a negotiated solution to the nuclear impasse before the UN takes up a vote on fresh sanctions.

    The international community is sceptical at best when it comes to Lula's efforts to forge an agreement when so many others have failed, and downright suspicious of his friendship with Ahmadinejad.

    In depth

      Blog: Differing views on Iranian engagement
      Timeline: Brazil-Iran ties

    Even Dmitry Medvedev, Lula's stiff Russian ally, said this week - in front of Lula no less - that he gives the Brazilian president only a 30 per cent chance of success in Tehran.

    Lula, ever the optimist, said in response that he gives himself a 9.9 out of 10 chance of success.

    Onlookers, especially those from the West whose best interest it is that Lula fail, probably viewed his remark as naive. (That is the same thing Lula heard back in 1989 when he made his first run for the presidency.)

    Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, perhaps seeing an opening to jab Brazil, echoed Medvedev's remarks, in a way that that sent a clear signal of, "see, even your friends give you little chance of success".

    It's debatable that it's in the best interest of the US for Lula to succeed in Tehran. It's not debatable that the US would much prefer Lula not stick his nose into the Iran affair and muddle their plans.

    Given all that has been written, and given Brazil's new efforts on the world stage, there is a need for some important points to be examined more sharply.

    Tehran's goals

    First, let's be very clear, what he doesn't hope or expect to achieve is a) Middle East peace, b) a sudden friendship between the Israelis and the Iranians, c) an immediate understanding between Iran and the US.

    He also is in no way, shape, or form going to Tehran to help Iran acquire nuclear weapons.

    Brazil has said all along, unequivocally to anyone who would listen and even those who didn't want to hear it, that Iran has a right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

    in video

    Brazil's president hopes to broker a deal with Iran

    Well-connected Brazilian diplomats also tell me that if it comes down to a vote in the UN for fresh sanctions, Brazil will probably go along with it, as its relationship with the UN outweighs a friendship with Iran.

    The country also has no intention in assisting Iran with obtaining nuclear weapons - that goes against the ethos of the country, not to mention the Brazilian constitution, which prevents the country from using uranium for militaristic purposes.

    What Lula is hoping for is to find common ground and a negotiated solution acceptable to Ahmadinejad.

    Specifically, persuading the Iranians to buy enriched uranium from third-party countries for the use in solely peaceful purposes, in exchange for ratcheting down their own nuclear ambitions.

    Lula is essentially going to offer the same argument to the Iranians that other allies have over the past few months, but the difference is that Lula believes strongly in his power of persuasion. And he also believes, and is unwavering on, Iran's fundamental right to nuclear energy.

    Brazilians are used to Lula travelling off to far away lands as president - he has been abroad on business more than any other president in the country's history. But when it comes to the high-level gamesmanship with Iran, Brazilians are basically in one of two camps.

    The first is the group of people who say Brazil has nothing to gain from engagement with Iran and question Lula's motives. 

    "The only possibly reason for engagement with Iran is a personal interest from [Lula]," Marco Antonio Villa, a professor, told me recently.

    "In 2011, after the end of his presidential term, he wants to be nominated to a high position in an international organisation like the UN or FAO. We all know it's his dream to be secretary-general of the United Nations.

    "So [Lula] is using Brazilian foreign policy to his personal advantage, to raise his profile, and possibly gains votes from Arab countries and countries friendly to Iran. I find that very grave, because never before in Brazilian history a president has used Brazilian diplomacy for personal interests."

    Supportive camp

    The second camp in Brazil is those who support Lula's engagement as a new era in the nation's foreign policy. This camp of people looks at the exact same circumstances and sees everything to gain, and nothing to lose.

    Jorio Dauster, Brazil's former ambassador to the European Union and one of the country's sharpest diplomatic minds, told me the world is so polarised over Iran that it has created a vacuum, leaving a little room for a new, emerging power to enter the diplomatic heavyweight arena.

    in video
    Lula tells Al Jazeera world must engage with Iran

    "In this vacuum that was created, an exceptional space opened up for Brazil to exercise our just-fortified diplomatic capacity, despite the pessimistic Brazilians who prefer to always hide underneath the skirt of the United States," Dauster said.

    "So the question is not why should Brazil engage Iran, the question is why not? Because we are afraid of upsetting the Europeans or Americans? But we haven't. Brazil can and will still talk to them, which is the beauty of Brazil's diplomacy."

    Brazil and Iran have minimal trade ties - at best. Meat is the principal Brazilian export to Iran, but it's a relatively miniscule $300 million a year trade.

    Last year, Iran was responsible for 0.8 per cent of Brazil's total exports, and less than 0.1 per cent of its imports.

    The foreign ministry argues that the ties are growing, as overall trade between 2002 and 2009 has gone from $500m to $1.2bn today. But it's still a drop in the bucket.

    While there are an estimated 10 million Arab-Brazilians, there is microscopic population of Iranians in Brazil.

    And Petrobras, Brazil's state-run oil behemoth, has only a small operation in Iran and actually threatened to pull out of the country last year.

    Lula, I am told, views this lack of traditional interconnection between the two countries as a benefit, showing that his interest is solely with a negotiated peace and not any periphery, underlining issues.

    Brazil's programme

    A lot has been written in the international press in recent weeks about how in the 1970s, the US opposed Brazil's efforts to develop nuclear technology, and there is an insinuation this is payback time for Brazil.

    Few Brazilian thinkers take this argument seriously. They say Lula's policy with Iran is realpolitik, about today and not the 1970s.

    But to further scratch beyond the surface, it is instructive to understand one often overlooked angle to Brazil's nuclear strategy in relation to Iran: Brazil is one of only three countries in the world that has natural mineral uranium and also the technology to convert uranium to nuclear energy. The others are Russia and the US.

    "Other countries like Australia have uranium, but lack the technology to produce nuclear fuel," Luis Roberto Porto of Electronuclear, Brazil's nuclear energy body, told me last week.

    "France has the technology but does not have uranium. The fact that Brazil has both is a major competitive advantage to the country."

    Hydropower dominant

    To be clear, only three per cent of Brazil's energy comes from nuclear sources. Hydropower, accounting for about 93 per cent, is the main driver of Brazil's energy matrix now and in the foreseeable future.

    But the country is well positioned on the nuclear front, given that it controls the entire nuclear cycle, from raw uranium - Brazil has the world's sixth largest reserves - to enrichment for energy.

    Brazil has two operating nuclear power plants for energy purposes - Angra 1 and Angra 2, both along the coast and outside Rio de Janeiro - and the country is about to formally start construction on a third plant that should be completed in a couple years.

    The only other countries in Latin America with nuclear power plants are Mexico and Argentina, with two apiece.

    But Brazil's nuclear ambitions are growing and there is a plan in place for a total of seven nuclear power plants by 2030, one of which they hope to be powered fully by enriched uranium.

    Comparatively, the US has 104 nuclear power plants, France 58 and Japan 54, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

    Advanced technology

    Brazil has the ability to enrich uranium in small quantities, but chooses to buy enriched uranium from abroad instead, where the technology is more advanced.

    Brazil is well positioned in terms of its nuclear strategy, but how Iran views that in relation to its own nuclear ambitions only Iran knows for sure.

    When Lula is in Tehran, he will be haunted by the same old echoes from his critics of "you can't".

    But he has committed himself to this cause, because in the eyes of Lula, this is a risk worth taking, a principle worth standing for at a time in history when he clearly feels Brazil's number has been called.

    At a time when so many other supposedly wealthier and smarter leaders from the West seem to have all but closed the door, Lula knows full well he might be the last, best shot at keeping dialogue open and, perhaps, forging peace.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


    'We were forced out by the government soldiers'

    'We were forced out by the government soldiers'

    We dialled more than 35,000 random phone numbers to paint an accurate picture of displacement across South Sudan.

    Interactive: Plundering Cambodia's forests

    Interactive: Plundering Cambodia's forests

    Meet the man on a mission to take down Cambodia's timber tycoons and expose a rampant illegal cross-border trade.

    Pakistan's tribal areas: 'Neither faith nor union found'

    Pakistan's tribal areas: 'Neither faith nor union found'

    Residents of long-neglected northwestern tribal belt say incorporation into Pakistan has left them in a vacuum.