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Brazil's slow break with Iran

ahmadi-brazilBy Gabriel Elizondo

Iran and Brazil. My, oh, my. How times can change in the realpolitik world of international diplomacy.

It just seemed like yesterday that Turkey, Brazil and Iran announced with great fanfare the nuclear fuel swap deal meant to stave off new UN sanctions.

Going into the negotiatoins, Brazil had a clear mission at the time

Once the deal was done, in May last year, it was triumphed by the principals involved as a sign that international diplomacy can be accomplished - thank you very much - amongst developing powers without the influence of Europe or the US.

But the deal was quickly brushed off, as a Reuters headline said at the time, by "an unconvinced West”.

Regardless of the blocking of the well-intentioned accord, the signing of it culminated what many believed at the time would be a longstanding Turkey-Brazil-Iran diplomatic power triangle - with Turkey famously bridging the Europe-Arab World divide and the brash new kid on the block, Brazil, bridging the North America-South divide. In the middle, Iran.  

There was certainly debate within Brazil at the time on what, if any, self interest Brazil had in the deal.

But, maybe in the end, it was a courtship of convenience.

At the time, the Iranian regime was in need of a fresh-faced, up-and-coming global powerhouse as an ally and Brazil fit the bill perfectly.

Brazil, at the time, had a wildly popular president in Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva who was looking to greatly expand his country's foreign policy in major international issues.

The Iran nuclear issue fit the bill. And for the Brazilians, adding the weight and regional credibility of Turkey into the mix made it all the better.

Likewise, the friendship produced economic benefits, as Lula da Silva himself said in a speech in Tehran last year.

In the last eight years, the commercial trade between Iran and Brazil doubled from $500m to $1.2bn. Iran is now one of the top three trading partners in the Middle East for Brazil.  

Back in 2009, more than 450 Brazilian companies exported to Iran. And in the first semester of 2010, when Brazil-Iran relations were their closest, Brazilian exports to Iran increased 77 per cent, while Iran imports to Brazil increased 125 per cent.

But things have changed. Lula da Silva is out of office. Influential former foreign minister, Celso Amorim (who was named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the world's top Global Thinkers last year) is semi-retired in Rio de Janeiro.

And so too, perhaps, is Brazil’s friendship with Iran.

The dynamic between Brazil and Iran has taken a sudden and abrupt turn in the form of Dilma Rousseff.

Brazil’s new president is barely three months into her presidency, and she has mostly veered far away from jumping into the sometimes murky pool of international politics, letting her smooth and highly experienced foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, be the main voice on all things outside Brazil's borders.

However, even during the campaign whenever she was pestered by reporters about "the Iran question," usually two words that ended up coming out of her mouth in her answer were “human” and “rights.”

No doubt this made the Iranians uncomfortable.

Weeks ago, when it was becoming clear Rousseff would not be deferential to Iran, the Iranian ambassador said the new president was “badly informed” about events in his country.

Rousseff, who was tortured in her youth at the hands of Brazil’s dictatorship and has risen to be Brazil’s first woman president, had given signs all along she wanted to cool off relations with Iran. Cooling? No. She now appears to be dumping a bucket of ice water on it. Freezing it.   In the surest sign yet of a new Brazilian posture vis-à-vis Iran, Brazil voted on Thursday in the UN Human Rights Council to authorise a resolution for a special rapporteur to investigate possible human rights abuses in Iran.

It’s the first time in a decade that Brazil has voted for anything significant that runs counter to the current Iranian government’s liking.

(Some people are skill skeptical. As one of my Brazilian follower's on Twitter messaged me: "Brazil changes course on Iran but still recognises Gaddafi and other dictators who are even worse in human rights.")

Maybe Iran was expecting this all along.

Surely Tehran knew that If Brazil's opposition candidate in last year's election - former Sao Paulo governor Jose Serra - would have won the election he certainly would have put the brakes on relations with Iran faster and harder than Rousseff.

Let's be clear: Iran benefitted not so much from Brazil, but from Lula da Silva, the man, a historic Brazilian political figure who took his country's foreign policy to places it had never been before with such authority (Iran, Palestine, Africa to name a few).

The problem for Iran - that they are now finding out - is that figures like Lula da Silva don't come around too often, and Brazil's fallback option under almost anybody else is a foreign policy more risk-averse across the board.   

And Brazil in 2011 is a place where Lula da Silva's opinon doesn't matter much anymore. Rousseff's opinion does. And her opinion on this one is pretty clear.

Nevertheless, Rousseff - Lula’s former chief of staff - remains a tight ally and friend of da Silva (they will travel to Portugal together next week).

Without Lula and his unreal 78 per cent approval ratings backing her during the campaign last year, it’s debatable wheteher she would even be president today.

Rousseff rarely disagrees with her former boss on anything. Iran being one big exception. 

Where will the Iran-Brazil relationship go from here?

It’s anybody’s guess. But it certainly will likely not go back to the way it was. At least not while Rousseff is president.

Washington must be smiling.

Gabriel Elizondo has been reporting from Brazil for over three years both for television and the web.

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