To the grizzled hawks in Washington it must be something of a nightmare. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is using his first official trip abroad since his contentious reelection in June not to visit traditional allies in the Middle East or Asia, but to do business with Brazil. Considering the United States' traditionally fraught relations with its South American neighbors, the welcoming of an outspoken anti-American leader by President Lula could be seen as a diplomatic minefield.
Ahmadinejad's good relations with Venezuela's openly anti-American regime are well-known. As well as President Hugo Chavez, the Iranian leader has already nurtured relations with Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa. But this is the first time an Iranian leader has visited Brazil, a country with major international aspirations.
The one-day visit is the first leg of a Latin American and African tour that will also take in Venezuela, Bolivia, Gambia and Senegal, and is being seen as part of a concerted Iranian campaign to win influence in parts of the western hemisphere.
Back in May, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Iran's growing influence in South America "disturbing" and Ahmadinejad was forced to cancel his intended visit to Brazil at the last minute following protests by thousands of demonstrators.
The antipathy to Ahmadinejad has not left Brazil in the interim. Demonstrations organized by homosexual organizations, Jewish leaders, and the opposition group the Front for the Liberation of Iran took place in 15 cities across the country in the last week.
But the international mood has also changed since May. The meeting has the blessing of US President Barack Obama, who, Brazilian diplomats said, asked Lula to begin a dialogue with Ahmadinejad during a meeting in London.
For its part, Brazil has ambitions to raise its profile on the international stage. Currently preparing to take up a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council next year, Brazil is eager to show it can foster peace talks in the Middle East. Ahmadinejad's visit to Brazil comes barely a week after a visit by Israeli president Shimon Peres, and Lula plans to travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories in March 2010. Eventually, Lula wants Brazil to win a permanent seat on the Security Council.
New business opportunities
There is a lot on the agenda in the short meeting. Ahmadinejad is being accompanied by some 200 Iranian business leaders looking for a range of opportunities from oil to financial investments, and the two leaders are expected to sign 23 commercial agreements.
These new business ties could pose diplomatic difficulties for Lula, since the US and Europe have imposed economic sanctions on Iran. Konstantin Kosten, Iranian policy expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle that, "Iran could become more dependent on economic relations with South America if the economic relations with the US and Europe continue to degenerate. Iran certainly has a strong interest in expanding its opportunities there."
This means that Lula is under pressure to bring up the darker sides of the Iranian regime at their meeting. But on the perennial issue of Teheran's controversial nuclear program, Lula also faces a minefield. Like Iran, Brazil has a nascent nuclear power industry. "There could certainly be an interest in creating a stronger exchange of atomic technologies between Iran and Brazil," said Kosten.
This is a risk that the Brazilian president has measured carefully. And it is important he has done so. Despite Obama's support for the meeting, there have been plenty of American voices of condemnation. "This is a gross mistake for a respected president of a respected country," US Representative Eliot Engel, a Democrat who is co-chairman of a congressional caucus created to promote better relations with Brazil, said recently, "To elevate Ahmadinejad, when he represses his own people, denies the Holocaust, says he'll wipe Israel off the map - it shows Brazil isn't ready to be taken seriously as a world player."
But Professor Guenther Maihold, research fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, is convinced that such statements will not do Lula long-term damage. "Unlike Chavez, Lula is not taking a loyal and supporting position to Ahmadinejad. He has promised to raise human rights issues, and he has very different views from those of Chavez," he told Deutsche Welle.
The meeting comes a week after a Tehran court sentenced five people to death in connection with protests that followed Ahmadinejad's reelection, and Lula will be under pressure should Ahmadinejad choose to make another speech in which he denies the Holocaust.
"It is a learning experience for Lula," said Maihold, "He will learn to understand how the economic interests tied up with the meeting come into conflict with the human rights issues. These are exactly the kinds of conflicts that countries that play leading international roles need to handle."
Kosten agreed: "It could be true that Lula is risking a small part of his image, but he has already said clearly that he wants to speak to everyone, even if some countries disapprove."
It may seem that Ahmadinejad has more to gain economically and diplomatically from finally being received by South America's largest nation - an increasingly important player in world politics. But the Brazilian president has clearly calculated that he does not have much to lose either, and, if he can make a foothold for his ambitious nation in Middle East politics, at least as much to gain.
Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Rob Mudge