November 18, 2009 -
Plenty of ink is being spilled this week over President Obama's trip to Asia. Looming is another key head of state visit. Iran's Ahmadinejad is set to visit Brazil next Monday. The stakes are high.
Sure, the Iranian president has played in the Western Hemisphere with the likes of Venezuela's Chavez and Nicaragua's Ortega. But his visit to Brazil --South America's anchor-- takes it up a big level. In the recent past, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva kept Ahmadinejad somewhat at arms length. Brazil's relations with Iran were low level, lacking the personal relationship that Ahmadinejad has forged with Chavez and others.
The Brazilian president is moving his country away from U.S. policy. At the United Nations this fall, Lula challenged a reporter to "Give me one example of how Venezuela is undemocratic." Earlier this year, he compared the protests in Iran's streets to clashes between rival soccer teams: "Whoever wins celebrates, and who loses cries." He has defended Iran's nuclear program and called Tehran a "great partner."
President Lula likely sees this visit as part of his "South to South" strategy of building political capital across the developing world. He has opened 35 embassies in the past six years, mostly in Africa and the Caribbean. This campaign has increased his world stature, bolstered by his stunning Olympic site victory over Chicago.
For Ahmadinejad, the goal is legitimacy in our Hemisphere, and recruiting another ally to gum up any diplomatic move against his nuclear drive. And Brazil is a big catch. As Doug Farah put it recently before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Brazil is a "serious power." He went on, "They are the economic engine... Chavez is viewed, I think, largely as a clown. Lula is not. If [Ahmadinejad] gets legitimized by Lula, it's huge - something much more important than Chavez could ever give him."
So the world will be watching. President Lula could play the statesman by standing-up to Ahmadinejad, telling him that Iran's nefarious activities in South America are unwelcome, and that his nuclear program will bring diplomatic isolation and pain for Iranians. That's a long shot. Far more likely is that Monday's visit will be a depressing milestone on the way to South America's future.