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Thursday, 4 March 2010

Brazil's rejection of sanctions against Iran: US-Brazilian relations in context

Hilary Clinton’s failure to get Brazil to sign on to US-backed sanctions against Iran’s nuclear programme was to be expected: throughout his presidency, Lula has adopted a conciliatory approach to foreign policy. He has maintained good relations with various antagonists of the US, including Cuba and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. But the event also shows the contradictory nature of Washington’s relationship with Brazil and raises questions about its foreign policy direction after Lula’s departure at the end of the year.

On one hand, Washington’s request highlights its expectations that Brazil follow the US lead on global matters. And indeed, for much of the past half-century Brazilian foreign policy has done so, especially during the Cold War when it placed itself firmly within the American orbit. Indeed, the US was among the first countries to recognise the anti-communist military regime that overthrew the government of João Goulart in 1964 and turned a blind eye to many of the human rights abuses that followed, reaching a peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

On the other hand, since the end of the Cold War Brazil has adopted an increasingly multilateral and independent line. Under both the George W Bush and Barack Obama presidencies there have been signs that the US is happy for Brazil to play a greater role, especially at the regional role. This is reflected in Brazil’s leading role in the continent-wide Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) through which it helped defuse the Bolivian coup crisis in 2008. Similarly, the US has been happy for Brazil to lead the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti since the mid-2000s and has been notably silent over the current Falkland Islands/Malvinas dispute – at a time when Lula has been actively speaking on behalf of Argentina.

However, Brazil’s more robust international engagement has also causes headaches for the US. Under Lula’s predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002), Brazil was at the forefront against the developed world’s use of agricultural subsidies in the current Doha trade round and was active in challenging the global (or arguably American) patents regime by allowing local production of retroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS sufferers.

The question is whether Brazil-US relations will change significantly next year, when Lula’s successor is installed in Brasília. If Lula’s preferred candidate, Dilma Rouseff is elected, more of the same should be expected. If her challenger, who is likely to be São Paulo state governor José Serra, wins the situation may be less certain. As health minister it was Serra who presided over the controversial retroviral drugs policy. At the same time though, he was critical of the Iranian president’s visit to Brazil last November. In this respect he echoed Cardoso, who saw the visit as ‘rhetorical’, since Brazil has little influence in the Middle East. Consequently, could a change of leadership therefore herald a change in Brazil’s foreign policy generally and specifically on Iran?

Guy Burton is a research associate on the Latin America International Affairs Programme at the Ideas Centre.


Nick Kitchen said...

Brazil's stance stems from both its own history - when external pressure drove its civilian nuclear programme underground in the 1970s - and a broader ideological stance as a leader of the developing world wary of being seen to bow to direct US influence.

In this second sense, one can construe the very purpose of Hilary Clinton's trip as the deliberate provision of the opportunity for Brazil to both confirm their 'latinista' with regional anti-Americans and affirm their rising power status domestically.

Fundamentally, the Brazilian 'rejection' means little: Brazil has no security council veto and though as a temporary member it can stymie the sanctions process against Iran it is China's stance - and the ability of the West to generate the kind of resource and geopolitical hedges that China will need if it is to suspend its relationship with Iranian oil - that will remain crucial.

Anonymous said...

This article has gone rather stale, superseded by later events most notably the Brazilian-Turkish initiative for a peaceful treaty with Iran over nuclear fuel, and the ensuing American vigorous effort to nullify said treaty.

After its diplomatic kick below the belt, Obama followed up rejecting Lula's standing invitation to visit Brazil this year on some spurious reason or whatever. Even the exhibition in the US of a movie based on Lula's life story was rejected (by major distributors).

I'd say current relations between Brazil and the US are frosty, to say the least. Not enemies by any means, but colder than, say, the relations between US and Equador. I'd put the animosity almost on the level of US-Bolivia relations.

Way to go. From the Brazilian point of view Hillary acted as a backstabber and the US as a very partial international player with a not-so-hidden agenda.