Brazil's troubling overtures to Iran

Friday, November 27, 2009

FOR SEVERAL years, U.S. policy in Latin America has aimed at forging a partnership with Brazil. Like the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration sees Latin America's largest country as an emerging superpower whose economic dynamism and relatively stable democracy make it a natural ally. But Brazil's potential has been frequently overestimated in the past; an old saw says it will always be the country of the future. And this week its popular but erratic president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is doing his best to prove the cynics right.

On Monday Mr. Lula literally gave a bear hug to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who thereby recorded a major advance in his effort to prop up his shaky domestic and international standing. Heading an extremist regime that is rejected by the majority of Iranians -- and that has just spurned a compromise on its outlaw nuclear program -- the Iranian president headed abroad in search of friends. He found few: Gambia and Senegal in Africa; and Hugo Chávez's Venezuela, along with two of its satellites, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's world tour would have looked pathetic and served to underline the growing isolation of his hard-line clique, if not for the warm welcome from Mr. Lula. When even Russia is publicly discussing new sanctions against Tehran, the Brazilian government signed 13 cooperation agreements with the regime, prompting Mr. Ahmadinejad to predict that bilateral trade would grow fifteenfold.

Mr. Lula had nothing to say about the bloody suppression of Iran's pro-democracy reform movement, or Mr. Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and Israel's right to exist. Instead he declared that Iran has a right to its nuclear program. Mr. Ahmadinejad, in turn, endorsed Brazil's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Mr. Lula showed why the West would be wise to keep that chair on hold. His advocates say he invited the Iranian president because he aspires to broker peace in the Middle East. If so, the Brazilian president merely demonstrated his ignorance of the region. The Revolutionary Guard faction that Mr. Ahmadinejad represents is the force most implacably opposed to an Israeli-Arab settlement; that's why it backs the terrorism of Hamas and Hezbollah. Mr. Lula's embrace of Mr. Ahmadinejad will not change his fanaticism, but it may make him stronger. It will also ensure that any attempt by Brazil to intervene in the Middle East will be dismissed by Israel and mainstream Arab governments.

Brazil may yet become a regional power; Mr. Lula's mostly sensible domestic policies have made it stronger. But if it is to acquire global influence, Brazil will have to reform the anachronistic Third Worldism that informs its foreign policy. By embracing pariahs such as Mr. Ahmadinejad or attempting to position itself between the democratic West and the world's rogue states, Brazil will merely ensure that it remains the country of the future.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company