Lula and Erdoğan Go to Tehran: Alternative Perspectives on Their Diplomatic Prospects

Brazil’s President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, will travel to Iran this weekend, ostensibly to attend the G-15 summit meeting that opens in Tehran on Monday.  But Lula’s trip is attracting enormous international attention because the Brazilian leader will use his visit to try, in collaboration with Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to broker a diplomatic deal on refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).

Of course, Brazil and Turkey are presently both non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.  How things go in Tehran over the next few days with regard to the TRR issue — and how Washington responds — will have a significant impact on Brazil and Turkey’s positions with respect to a new Security Council resolution imposing further sanctions against the Islamic Republic over its nuclear activities.

Lula’s effort, with Erdoğan, to broker a TRR compromise clearly has the Obama Administration and many others in Washington “on edge.”  Our friend and colleague, Steve Clemons, posted a provocative piece in the Washington Note (versions were also posted on The Huffington Post and TPM Café) that, among other things, brings out major themes in the Obama Administration’s internal discourse about Lula’s trip.  In particular, Steve argues that Lula is putting much of the recent rise in Brazil’s international standing at risk with his diplomatic venture in Tehran.  Specifically, Steve notes that

President Lula’s trip to Iran and his enthusiasm about injecting himself as a broker between Iran and the P-5+1 countries . . . is fraught with serious dangers for his legacy and for Brazil’s aspirations to be accommodated in the world’s most powerful institutions.  Iran and the West are in a serious standoff over the course of Iran’s nuclear intentions. . . .  Nations rarely indicate what their top tier national security priorities really are as politically correct platitudes about various causes get in the way, but there is little doubt that for the United States, encouraging Iran to pivot from a nuclear weapons capacity, latent or real, is very near the top, if not the single most important national security objective of the [Obama] administration.

There are two possible outcomes from Lula’s upcoming trip to Tehran.  First, Lula’s well-meaning efforts to defuse one of the world’s tensest, building crises may result in convincing Iran that it has a political back door out of the increasingly tough wall that the US is trying to assemble around Iran with the support of China, Russia, Europe, Japan, and many other nations that participated in the recent Nuclear Security Summit and who are key players in the current Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review underway now in New York.  Giving Iran a back door would seriously aggravate American policymakers who have enough problems at the moment communicating resolve to Iran’s leadership.

Alternatively, Lula could succeed in taking the message that everyone [has] issued to Iran — which is to engage in a serious discussion that ranges from the Islamic Republic’s own concerns about regime security to inclusion in global institutions to accommodation of its growing regional interests in exchange for helping to alleviate the West’s lack of trust in its nuclear activities and ongoing concerns with Iran’s funding of transnational terror groups.

Lula could perhaps be the person who helps Iran to move forward in ways that it has not — but, in doing so, Lula cannot afford to be seen as acquiescing to or promoting Iran’s strident misbehavior. . . .  [T]he reality is that the United States remains a vital global player that can enhance or restrict the aspirations of new powers.  President Lula’s decision to jump into the US/Europe vs. Iran match has turned enormous Obama administration enthusiasm for Brazil and Lula into confusion; for some, real doubt about Brazil’s judgment. . . .  While the Obama administration was giving previous “special relationships” like the UK, Israel, and Japan some less privileged treatment than they had grown used to, Obama and his team were trying hard to ‘upgrade’ some of the relationships that are vital to the future.  Brazil is clearly one of these, but its Iran moves threaten a lot.

Some senior folks in the administration as well as sophisticated observers in the US Senate and House of Representatives think that at just the moment when Lula got the US wanting to seriously advocate for Brazil’s inclusion in any reformulation of the UN Security Council permanent membership, Brazil then stepped into the Iran mess.  Lula’s posture thus far has not necessarily been one of a fair-minded broker but oddly more as an advocate of Iran’s declarations.

Perhaps Lula is just cozying up to Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to be able to give them some tough love and deliver more serious words privately.  However, if that is the case, Lula’s government has not used back channels to either Europe or the US that that is his intention. . . .  Brazil on many levels is becoming a vital global player — and should be one. . . .  That said, the trust needed among the world’s biggest stakeholders to make space for Brazil’s global leap forward is threatened by possible missteps on Iran. . . .  I think that this situation can still be managed depending on Lula’s posture when in Iran, his willingness to communicate behind the scenes with the US and other key stakeholders in the Iran standoff, and whether or not he actually produces any shift in Iran’s recalcitrant position.

This summitry represents a big gamble by Brazil’s impressive President — and one hopes that he understands that his nation’s rightful place as a key pillar of emerging international stakeholders depends on getting nations like Iran to move beyond their past, to get beyond paranoia, and to constructively negotiate about strategic factors that divide Iran from the rest of the world.

On the other hand, our colleague Farid Marjai — whose work has been featured on previously — responds to Steve’s analysis with a different take on the strategic calculations facing Lula and his advisers.  We post this excerpt from Farid’s argument with his permission; a fuller version of his analysis of Lula’s outreach to Iran will be published this weekend in both Iran and Brazil.  (We will include a link to that piece when it is available.)

Mr. Clemons is trying to tempt President Lula da Silva, so he does not get in the way of the upcoming “sanctions package,” and not to undermine the political cohesion behind the sanctions regime.  To put it humorously, one can say, the article is holding a glass of chocolate milk (top job at the IMF, or UN Sect Gen . . .), and saying, if you follow these steps, you will get this.

This chocolate milk has pretty wrapping and packaging, but if you look closely at the ingredients, it is similar to the chocolate milk Ahmadinejad was allegedly giving to his supporters to come out to the streets for the anniversary of the Iranian revolution.  Mr. Clemons writes, “But the reality is that the United States remains a vital global player that can enhance or restrict the aspirations of new powers” — read, ambitions of individual leaders.

Politely, with nuance, President Lula is told to step in line.  But, Lula da Silva is not an errand boy.  Lula did not create this confidence for Brazil by taking his cue from Washington.  Lula’s Brazil has occupied this special place, precisely for pursuing “multilateralism.”  Lula’s Brazil has been effective in the creation of coalitions such as that of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) and BRICSAM (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and Mexico).  Had he wanted to play the old game, and satisfy others’ agenda, he would not have cosponsored new entities such as UNASUR, where realities are viewed from a Latin American perspective, independent of US imperatives.  (In contrast with UNASUR, historically, the US had much influence in OAS, the Organization of American States).

Even though the essay mentions “the world’s new rising powers,” the overall discourse of this article is obsolete in my opinion; it belongs to the 1970’s era — telling Latin American leaders what is good for them.  With a GDP of almost $2 trillion, Brazil is the eighth largest economy in the world.  Lula’s government has created new markets for Brazil in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.  The national oil company Petrobras (the 4th largest) just signed a contract with a Chinese energy company in billions.  This is not the Brazil of the 1980’s; so our expectations would be more reasonable, and our discourse would resonate and be more effective, if new realities were taken into consideration.

Lula’s Brazil occupies this special place, and is a rising power, precisely because of his multilateral approach to foreign policy.  Under Lula’s government, trade with Iran has gone from 14 million dollars, to almost 2.5 billion.  The entourage accompanying Lula in his trip to Iran will include 90 people.  Foreign Minister Celso Amorim was in Iran two weeks ago.  Brazil and Turkey are rotating members of the Security Council at the moment; from all indications they will vote against sanctions.

In his visits to the Middle East, President Lula engages dialogue with both Israel and Palestine; it is this inclusionary worldview that has brought respect for President Lula, not an exclusionary behavior.  This is not the Brazil of the 1970’s where military dictators went to the “School of Americas” for training.

Diversification of trade is another hallmark of Lula’s Brazil; they are purchasing fighter planes from France.  I doubt Lula would take bribes.  A former metal worker, he lost one of his fingers on the factory floor.

Pressure is building up on Lula as his official visit to Iran is approaching.  For example see this Washington Post piece [by Jackson Diehl] which calls Lula a ‘useful idiot’: <

We should congratulate Lula for his engagement and dialogue with all countries, including Iran, to bring resolution and peace.  We should not tempt or bribe him to stop that (so sanctions can be imposed on a nation).  As the Persian mystic Rumi says, “to baray vasl kardan amadi; nay baray fasl kardan amadi.”  In the parable of Moses and the Shepherd, God tells Moses: “at the end, you should know, your mission was to bring people together, and not to alienate or exclude them.”  As Mr. Clemons put it so beautifully, the idea is “rewriting a globally inclusive social contract. . . .”

For ourselves, we think that the stakes in Tehran over the next few days will be quite high.  Much will depend on whether Lula and Erdoğan defer to the Obama Administration’s demand that the main tenets of the Baradei proposal for refueling the TRR be treated as a “take it or leave it” proposition.  (In this regard, it is noteworthy that Baradei himself does not believe the proposal he formulated should be treated as a “take it or leave it” proposition.)

If Brazil and Turkey defer to American preferences, they would offer themselves to the Iranians as “good faith” intermediaries for implementing the Baradei proposal, but would not try to conduct independent diplomacy on the TRR issue.  If this is the agenda that Lula and Erdoğan follow in Tehran, then Steve’s scenario of Brazil acting as a responsible “emerging international stakeholder” and supporting new sanctions in the face of “Iran’s recalcitrant position” is likely to play out.

However, if Lula and Erdoğan actually try to work with Iranian counteroffers to the Baradei proposal and develop the contours of a compromise settlement for refueling the TRR, then it could be the United States and its European partners who pay a diplomatic price for their intransigence on the issue.  And, under those circumstances, Washington’s hopes for a show of international “unity” in support for a new sanctions resolution could be severely damaged.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. This article was published in The Race for Iran on 14 May 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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