The obstacles to U.S. efforts to tighten UN sanctions against Iran were apparent in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's March 3 meetings in Brasilia. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said, "It is not prudent to push Iran against the wall," and Foreign Minister Celso Amorim called sanctions potentially "counterproductive."
While Brazil is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council and cannot veto resolutions, as a holder of a temporary seat, it can either facilitate or complicate consensus. Equally important, Brazil will play a role in ensuring that sanctions, if passed, get implemented successfully due to its activism inside the UN, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and in various informal groups.
There are three major factors behind Brazil's posture on Iran today. First, in the eyes of Brazilians, sanctions may well be a prelude to intervention. Amorim in the past few days has warned that the last time the Security Council voted on the basis of inconclusive evidence, the world ended up with a major illegitimate intervention in Iraq that undermined the principle of collective security.
Second, Brazil believes sanctions will only toughen the Iranian stance. Pressure and isolation, the argument has it, will create a major incentive for Tehran to seek a deterrent. Brazil is well acquainted with the rationale: in the face of U.S. opposition to its own civilian nuclear program back in the 1970s, Brazil set up secret nuclear activities that eventually succeeded in developing indigenous enrichment capacity. It took Brazil over a decade after that to sign up to the Nulcear Nonproliferation Treaty. As a high-ranking official in Brasilia recently said, "When Brazil looks at Iran it doesn't only see Iran, it sees Brazil too."
Third, Brazil sees debates over Iran's nuclear program as an opportunity to make a broader argument about the nonproliferation regime. In Brazilian eyes, the regime has become a politically driven tool in the hands of the United States to selectively "lay down the law" on weaker states. Why, Brazil argues, the fuss over Iran when Israel remains in a state of nuclear denial? And why does a member of the NPT like Iran get punished for allegedly seeking civilian enrichment technology, when India, which has chosen to remain outside the regime and challenge it overtly, gets a big reward from Washington instead? Furthermore, why expect compliance with Western preferences in the NPT if the major nuclear powers have been unable to honor their part of the deal and move decisively toward disarmament?
But while Brazil may try to blunt the sharper edges of what its officials see as U.S. hegemony, it will not undercut broader U.S. nonproliferation interests. On the contrary, it may well help advance them in consequential ways, such as helping build support in the developing world for a more efficient and legitimate regime.
And Brazil's attitude shouldn't be seen as a bout of anti-Americanism either. As a major beneficiary of collective security as we know it since 1945, Brazil is not a challenger of the American worldview. But as an emerging country with a long history of frailty and dependence, it seeks protection and hedging against great-power use of international norms to impose their will on weaker nations.
What can we expect then? Brazil's attitude is to wait for hard proof of a weapons programs underway in Iran--from a Brazilian perspective, existing evidence is not sufficient. If such fears were to be confirmed, though, there is no doubt that Brazil would move fast to condemn Iran.
Also, and significantly, officials in Brasilia on March 3 signaled their voting behavior in the Security Council is far from preordained. The door is open to negotiation, and it would be a mistake for Washington to dismiss Brazil's support at this stage.