Can Brazil prevent war with Iran?


Barack Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff greet each other during a joint press conference at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on March 19, 2011.



Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is visiting the United States this week, is very competent leading South America’s rising powerhouse. But does she somehow hold sway in Iran? Some commentators seem to think so.

Like Iran, Brazil has a uranium enrichment program. Unlike Iran, Brazil has largely convinced the world it's for peaceful purposes.

With Brazil's standing, the South American country could pressure Iran into giving up enrichment by leading by example, argues Bernard Aronson, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1989-93.

In a New York Times opinion piece titled "Can Brazil Stop Iran?," Aronson says it can. He writes:

Brazil has unique standing among developing nations to address this proliferation danger because of its historic, nationalist defense of enrichment. If it were to renounce its right to enrich uranium in the name of international peace, close its enrichment facility, embrace a longstanding United Nations proposal to accept enriched uranium from the [International Atomic Energy Agency] ... and call on other states that have signed the treaty to do the same, it would transform the nuclear debate.

Brazil and Iran have been paired together before. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil's former president, called Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a friend and rolled out the red carpet for him.

"It is important that someone sits down with Iran, talks with Iran and tries to establish a balance so we can get back to a kind of normality in the Middle East," Lula said, according to Time magazine.

Brazil's coziness with Iran angered some allies, but when Lula visited Tehran in May 2010, a US State Department official said it was a “last big shot at engagement.” How's that going?

Dilma Rousseff, Lula's hand-picked successor, changed course and cooled Brazil's friendship with Iran.

The last time Ahmadinejad toured Latin America, in January, he skipped over Brazil. He was not invited.

"The Brazilian president has been striking against everything that Lula accomplished," Ali Akbar Javanfekr, who has worked as an advisor to Ahmadinejad, said in an interview cited by The New York Times.

Eduardo J. Gomez, public policy and administration assistant professor at Rutgers University, offers a reason why.

"The answer lies in Rousseff's personal experiences and geopolitical ambitions," Gomez writes in an opinion article for CNN.

As someone who experienced human rights violations first hand under Brazil's military dictatorships (1964-1985), Rousseff has been unwaveringly committed to human rights. She has made it crystal clear that she will not support Iran unless President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seriously addresses this issue.

Rousseff's US visit no doubt will touch on other topics as well. (The Americas Society makes educated guesses about topics that will likely come up in her meeting with President Barack Obama. On Tuesday, she will give a talk at Harvard, which the university will stream live online.) 

Obama could surely use some pointers from his Brazilian counterpart. She enjoys a 77 percent approval rating, the highest of any leader in the Group of 20, Bloomberg reports.

Obama visited Rousseff in Brazil in March 2011, as part of his Latin America tour, and turmoil in the Middle East dominated global news just as it does today.

Last week, Obama said he would agree to an Iranian civilian nuclear program if Tehran proved it was not developing a nuclear weapon.

But some observers are hoping he will ask Brazil's leader for a firm hand to help dump enrichment entirely. Would Brazil be willing to sacrifice its own program to help defuse the Iran crisis? Let's see if Rousseff gives us an inkling this week.