How long can Brazil walk the tightrope?

Celso Amorim Ministro da Defesa Foto Antonio Araujo Camara dos Deputados20141209 0003

As Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad annouced to the world that his country would step up its uranium production, the response by the established Western powers was predictable.  Alarm, condemnation and the call for tougher economic sanctions followed swiftly.  Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, called for "crippling sanctions" against Tehran. While the US, the UK, France and even Russia seem to agree with Israel, Brazil, which holds a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, represents an opposing vision. Why does Brazil defend an unorthodox position in an area that does not seem to concern its national interest?

When Brazil, after decades of disappointment, finally set out to become a global player towards the end of the 20th century, analysts asked whether Brazil would join the liberal West and align with the major international institutions, or whether it would assume a third-worldish, confrontational posture, creating some kind of "anti-Imperialist" club. Yet, Brazil's foreign policy strategy shows that Brazil wants to be neither one nor the other. Brazil certainly does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons- at the same time, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim made clear that he does neither believe in isolating Iran, nor in the utility of sanctions. The strategy could work, and Brazil could serve as a mediator between the West and the non-West- precisely what it currently tries to do with Iran.

Yet, while until recently Iran was seen in Brasília as an opportunity to prove its mettle as a high-profile mediator, Brazil may now run the risk of being pulled into isolation. Amorim is right when he points out that sanctions are more likely to hurt Iran's already battered population. He also argues that driving Iran into further isolation is unlikely to solve the nuclear squabble. Yet, he fails offer a clear alternative, and there is a danger that other nations come to regard Brazil as a notorious nay-sayer who blocks everything out of principle.  Also, supporting Iran may become a liability at home in Brazil, where women's rights are cherished, and where government violence against protesters in Iran is harshly criticized. If Armorim's call for further dialogue is to be taken seriously, Brazil must not only maintain cordial ties with Iran, but also offer constructive criticism and clearly communicate to Iran that it must do its part to solve the stand-off. It remains unclear whether President Lula has, at any point during his conversations with Iran's Ahmadinejad, asked how Iran aims to do its part to reduce tensions.

Brazil could still emerge as the great winner of the situation if it finds a way to bring Iran and the West to the table. However, if Brazil holds on to its current stance for too long,  and misses the opportunity to reverse its policy in the face of an Iran determined to acquire nuclear weapons,  Brazil's carefully accumulated "diplomatic GDP" will melt away, casting a shadow on a rising star on the international stage.

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Foto: Antônio Araújo / Câmara dos Deputados