Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva heads to Tehran this week, a sort of victory lap for what he hopes will be a monumental piece of foreign policy: bringing Iran's leadership to the nuclear negotiating table. Last week, Tehran agreed "in principle" to Brazil and Turkey's offer to facilitate talks on an agreement proposed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last October. Should that initiative succeed, it will surely be remembered as Lula's crowning achievement.
But many are beginning to wonder if Lula can truly be the darling of the West while also wooing the East. Lula's administration has pitched the talks to Iran not as a way to come clean but as a way to prove that it is hiding nothing with its peaceful nuclear program -- and the United States and Europe are understandably skeptical. Back home, questions have arisen about the Brazilian leader's motivation for injecting himself and his country in such a daring initiative in the first place. It's certainly not about domestic politics; if anything, cozying up to Iran is losing Lula points at home. As his presidential term comes to an end, Lula's move might be more about building a legacy on the world stage than much of anything else. And it may well backfire.
Given Brazil's recent rise as a regional and a global player, it might come as a surprise that foreign policy and Iran policy in particular have been a source of criticism rather than praise for Lula's government back at home. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Brasilia last November was greeted with street protests and strong condemnation by the media and Lula's political opponents. José Serra, then São Paulo's governor and now a leading presidential candidate, criticized the president for embracing a dictator reminiscent of the military regime Lula and Serra -- themselves victims of political persecution -- fought to dislodge from power a quarter-century ago.
Subsequent Brazilian visits to Tehran had a similar effect. The image of a smiling Brazilian minister of commerce offering the national soccer team's revered yellow jersey to Ahmadinejad in Tehran last month caused discomfort even among Lula's allies. Clovis Rossi, a columnist and early supporter of Lula's foreign policy, wrote that the Brazilian soccer jersey is now "covered with blood" from Iranian dissidents killed by the Islamic government. A member of Lula's own Workers' Party spoke to me privately of his apprehension about Brazil's rapprochement with the Iranian regime, which he sees as a foreign-policy "exaggeration."
Leading names of Brazil's foreign-policy community have offered equally harsh assessments. In an interview with Brazil's UOL news, veteran diplomat Rubens Ricupero, a historian and former ambassador to Washington, described Brazil's self-initiated overture to Iran as symptomatic of a foreign policy driven by "the constant search for the spotlight."