Iran on May 17 signed an agreement brokered by Brazil and Turkey to ship low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for nuclear fuel for its medical research reactor. It is not clear whether the agreement will frustrate a U.S.-sponsored new round of sanctions by the UN Security Council. Nor is it clear that the Iranians will be reliable partners when it comes to implementation. To many in Washington, Brazil has been "naïve," playing the role of Iran's "useful idiot." Others see Brazil's move as more perniciously anti-American, the combination of rooted nationalism and an upcoming presidential race.
However the latest chapter of this crisis unfolds, it is important to understand Brazil's new diplomatic assertiveness. In the past few years, Brazil opened more than thirty new embassies in Africa, and the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva launched a Middle East policy that includes growing trade and political consultations with Iran, the Arab world, and Israel. The dominant perception in Brasilia today is that problems diplomats could afford to ignore only a few years ago now require a response. As is normally the case with rising powers, Brazil is now redefining its own national interests in ever-expanding terms.
Brazil, currently a nonpermanent member of the Security Council, has insisted that UN sanctions against Iran will be both ineffective and counterproductive. It shares the view held by a number of developing-world nations that the Nonproliferation Treaty has become a tool for the strong to lay down the law on the weak at their own discretion. Nuclear Israel and India will not be punished for sitting outside the regime, and may even be rewarded, say these countries, but Iran will be denied its rights under the NPT to enrich uranium to fuel a medical research reactor. No wonder, the argument goes, countries will have an incentive to abandon a regime that is in need of deep repair. Here Brazil believes it has the moral authority to speak up because it is the only non-nuclear member of the BRIC group (the major emerging-nations group that includes Russia, India, and China) and because it has willingly relinquished any ambitions to acquire a nuclear weapon.
This policy trend is unlikely to change no matter who succeeds Lula in the October presidential elections. There might be a partial pullback from current diplomatic exposure in places like Africa or the Middle East, and even a change in rhetoric. But the quest for upward mobility will remain in place, and so will the fundamental belief that the winds are blowing to Brazil's favor. As U.S. Ambassador to Brasilia Tom Shannon recently put it (FT), "As Brazil becomes more assertive globally and begins to assert its influence, we are going to bump into Brazil on new issues and in new places." This is because in the Brazilian view, existing models of governance have failed to produce a fair and stable international system.