Andres Oppenheimer

Brazil's self-proclaimed diplomatic victory in Iran led pundits to speculate that the South American country has become a major new player in world affairs. But they were most likely wrong, or at the very least spoke to soon.

Instead, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's announcement that Brazil and Turkey had brokered a deal with Iran to solve the international crisis over Iran's nuclear program may go down in history as a textbook case of diplomatic megalomania.

It may also raise growing questions about why Lula is single-handedly trying to solve the world's biggest problems -- such as Iran's nuclear program or, weeks earlier, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- while almost not lifting a finger to try to mediate disputes that are much closer to home in Latin America.

After signing the three-country deal during his visit to Iran, an ecstatic Lula -- who was recently picked by Time magazine as the world's most influential leader -- raised hands with Iranian strongman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and proclaimed that the agreement was a "victory of diplomacy."

Under the deal, aimed at dispelling Western fears that Iran is enriching uranium to build nuclear weapons in violation of U.N. non-proliferation rules, Iran agreed to ship some 2,640 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Turkey. In exchange, it will receive about a year later 265 pounds of enriched uranium from Russia and France.

The agreement was similar to one offered by the United States, Russia, China and Europe in October, which Iran first tentatively accepted and later dismissed. Supporters of the Brazil-Turkish mediation effort point out that Iran made significant concessions in the new agreement: Until now, Iran had balked at the idea of storing its uranium abroad, and had demanded that any swap for foreign-made enriched uranium be simultaneous.


But only hours after Lula's victory claim, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the Obama administration had struck a deal with Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain to impose sanctions on Iran.

In other words, world powers saw Iran's deal with Brazil and Turkey as yet another effort by the Iranian regime to buy time while it continues secretly building nuclear weapons. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council introduced a resolution Tuesday aimed at strengthening existing sanctions against Iran.

Nuclear proliferation experts say the Brazil-Turkey-Iran deal to revive the October plan was flawed because circumstances have changed significantly: Iran has continued enriching uranium at full speed over the past seven months. This means that Iran's latest agreement called for swapping a much smaller percentage of its uranium stockpile than under the previous plan.

"I don't think it was a diplomatic victory," says Sharon Squassoni, a nuclear proliferation expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, and former Clinton administration official. "Rather, it was a pre-emptive move on Iran's part to forestall new U.N. sanctions. In that respect, it failed."


My opinion: There is nothing wrong with an emerging power like Brazil taking chances to try to solve major international crises, even if Lula has a sad record of always coming to the rescue of some of the world's most ruthless dictators and that he has given underserved legitimacy to Ahmadinejad's regime by visiting Tehran. I would love to see Brazil taking risks in support of democracy and human rights.

But, in addition to that, why doesn't Brazil try to mediate the Venezuela-Colombia conflict over the leftist guerrillas in Colombia? Or the lingering dispute between Argentina and Uruguay over a pulp mill along their border? Or the territorial dispute between Chile and Peru? Or the Ecuador-Colombia conflict over the 2008 attack on a Colombian guerrilla base in Ecuador?

Brazil probably considers Latin American disputes to be beneath its desired international stature, or it may fear that playing a larger peace-making role in the region may come with economic responsibilities which it doesn't want to assume.

But you can't be a diplomatic midget in your own neighborhood and try to be a giant abroad. If Brazil wants to be a constructive player in world affairs, it could start by behaving like one at home.