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Lula Takes Tehran

May 16, 2010

Brazil's president Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva travels to Iran this weekend to continue his quixotic quest to mediate peace in the Middle East. He is positioning himself and his nation as a go-between with a nuclear-minded Iran on one side, and on the other, much of the rest of the global community. This visit reciprocates the one made to Brazil by Iran's leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in late 2009, which focused on energy and commercial exchange. More importantly, that visit provided crucial political space from the popular leader of an emerging nation at just the time that sanctions against Iran were under active consideration.

Since then, the situation has only intensified, with China and Russia, two of the so-called BRIC nations that just gathered for a summit in Brazil, expressing flexibility in working with the United States, Europe, and others to determine and implement sanctions against the Iranian regime. That leaves Brazil flying virtually solo, along with Turkey.

It's a risky move by Brazil's leader, who is putting his own credibility, if not his impressive legacy, on the line for a regime that has been identified as the top state sponsor of global terrorism. Yes, a delegation of business leaders and others will accompany Lula to Iran, but if the primary purpose of the trip were commercial, it could easily have been accomplished at a ministerial or even sub-ministerial level. President Lula's participation changes the dynamic, and makes the visit fundamentally political.

There is a chance -- however minute -- that in fact Lula and his advisors will be able to broker a deal that will satisfy all parties and convince the Iranians to climb down from their nuclear ambitions, agreeing on a path forward that will reduce regional tensions and offer all parties a face-saving solution. But that's unlikely, particularly given the nature of the Iranian regime.

More likely, Presidents Lula and Ahmadinejad and their foreign ministers have pre-cooked a scenario whereby Lula can come home with something that will justify the reputational risk he is taking, for example an agreement on nuclear reprocessing through third countries such as Russia and France. This would give Brazil a diplomatic "win," embarrass the United States which is pushing hard for sanctions and would be upstaged by another hemispheric nation, and buy Iran additional time to continue its apparent breakneck effort to develop a nuclear option. Lula will look like a peacemaker, and it will be difficult under the circumstances to agree globally on a sanctions regime without allowing the new circumstances time to play out.

Unfortunately, most observers believe that Iran's primary purpose is to play for time, and by using Brazil as a foil to divide the West, much as Iran was able to play Europe off for a number of years against the United States, Lula's end-of-term diplomatic initiative could well backfire. His trip is a political life-line to the Iranian regime. Rather than working with the United States, Europe, and the other BRIC nations to build a more secure global environment, Lula's gambit risks enabling an outcome that could dramatically heighten regional and indeed global tensions.

Nonetheless, expect Lula to return to Brasilia with a gift from Iran, no matter how ephemeral, that will allow him to claim the mantle, temporarily perhaps, of peacemaker. It only makes sense. In return, he's giving the leader of Iran's regime the greatest gift he possibly could -- time.

It sure beats the national soccer team jersey he gave to President Obama.