Andres Oppenheimer

Brazil's key diplomatic support of Iran's increasingly isolated regime is baffling the international community. There are several theories about Brazil's behavior, some of them quite troubling.

In recent days, as the traditionally cautious United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency finally concluded that Iran is likely to be developing a nuclear weapon, and even Russia began to distance itself from Iran, Brazil announced that President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will go ahead with plans to visit Iran on May 15.

Brazil, one of the world's new rising powers, will thus be giving much-needed legitimacy to a regime that, in addition to dodging international nuclear energy rules, is considered by much of the world a leading sponsor of terrorism.

Iran is known to aid Islamic terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, and it publicly vows to wipe a nearby country -- Israel -- off the face of the earth. Even Argentina's populist government, which normally sides with Brazil on foreign-policy issues, says Iran was behind the 1990s Hezbollah terrorist bombings in Buenos Aires.

Late last year, Lula raised eyebrows throughout the world when he gave a red-carpet welcome in Brasilia to Iranian strongman Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Brazil thus became one of the first nonradical countries to give its blessings to Ahmadinejad after Iran's highly controversial June 12, 2009, elections.

Why is Brazil risking its reputation as a good international citizen by doing this? Among the most widespread theories:


According to this school of thought, Brazil's economic success and the conventional wisdom that it has joined China and India among the world's emerging powers has gone to Lula's head.

The Brazilian president, who recently predicted that Brazil will be the world's fifth biggest economy within a decade, wants to send a message that his country is a new global player that will have to be taken seriously. So the theory goes: What better way to grab the world's attention than playing a role in the biggest international conflict of the moment?

Diplomatic wishful thinking

Lula, emboldened by his celebrity status at home and abroad, may be taking seriously his repeated offers to mediate in the Middle Eastern crisis. Lula is scheduled to visit Israel, the Palestine Authority and Jordan on March 15.

Though it's hard to believe that Lula could solve anything in the Middle East -- during a recent visit to the United Arab Emirates and Israel, I didn't run into one single person who told me that Lula has a chance of succeeding where powerful U.S., French and Russian mediators have failed -- the Brazilian president may honestly think he will be able to make history.

Secret nuclear ambitions

Lula is making friends with Iran because Brazil may want to develop nuclear weapons, or at least keep its options open after neighboring Venezuela signed several nuclear cooperation agreements with Iran. With that in mind, Brazil may want another country -- in this case Iran -- to push the limits of existing world nuclear agreements and set a precedent.

Late last year, Brazil's vice president, Jose Alencar, created a ruckus when he said Brazil should have the right to have nuclear weapons. Lula's spokesman immediately clarified that the vice president was not reflecting the government's views, reminding the world that Brazil is barred from producing nuclear weapons by Latin American treaties and by Brazil's own constitution.

Domestic politics

Lula is trying to appease his leftist Workers' Party backers, most of whom are rabidly anti-American, by casting himself as a fiercely independent statesman, while he pursues his pro-business economic policies.

My opinion:

It's a combination of the first theory, hubris, and the second, diplomatic day-dreaming. But I can't keep from wondering whether hubris won't lead sooner or later to greater nuclear ambitions.

For the time being, Brazil's overtures to Ahmadinejad are sabotaging international efforts to pressure Iran to abide by U.N. agreements, and are emboldening a repressive regime at home.

Rather than behaving like a responsible emerging power, Brazil is acting like a reckless newcomer seeking world attention at any cost.