THE ROVING EYE Brazil steps between Israel and Iran
By Pepe Escobar
Talk about a Via Dolorosa. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is the first Brazilian
president to visit Israel officially. Lauded for his charisma, swing and
formidable negotiating powers - United States President Barack Obama refers to
him as "the man" - little did Lula know that to engage his hosts this week he
would have to give the Prophet Abraham a run for his money, no less.
In the end, he stood his ground. He made no concessions. And unlike United
States Vice President Joseph Biden last week, he
even managed not to be publicly humiliated by his hosts.
Lula is no stranger to tough neighborhoods. Former bouncer turned hardline
politician Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, boycotted Lula's
speech at the Knesset (parliament) as well as Lula's meeting with Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The reason: Lula did not visit the tomb of Zionism
founder Theodor Herzl. But neither did France's President Nicolas Sarkozy or
Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi when they visited Israel.
Brasilia - as much as Paris and Rome - knows very well that a visit to the tomb
is not mandatory on presidential trips. Yet a choir of the Likud/settler
hardcore Zionist faction in Israel carped that this would fatally wound the
Brazilian government's drive to become a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian
After being grilled in the Knesset - including by Netanyahu - for his policy of
non-confrontation and dialogue with Iran, Lula did not flinch. He condemned
both the Holocaust and terrorism; he reminded his hosts of Brazil's and Latin
America's stand against nuclear weapons; he stressed "dialogue" and
"compassion" to solve the Middle East conflict; he defended a viable two-state
solution for Israel and Palestine; but he also did not refrain from criticizing
the expanded colonization of East Jerusalem. He received a standing ovation
and, according to some members of parliament, "more applause than [former US
president] George W Bush".
The tropical prophet
Not even at his Abrahamic best would Lula have been able to mollify Zionists
and assorted hardliners. Anyway, Lula told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz what
every serious player in the Middle East already knows; the "peace process" is
going nowhere, and bringing new mediators such as Brazil to the table is the
only way forward.
And the same applied to the Iranian dossier: "The [world] leaders I spoke to
believe that we must act quickly, otherwise Israel will attack Iran." Lula is
convinced that further sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program are
counter-productive. And this quote is bound to resonate globally, "We can't
allow to happen in Iran what happened in Iraq. Before any sanctions, we must
undertake all possible efforts to try and build peace in the Middle East."
The official Brazilian government view - echoed by much of the international
community (that is, not the exclusive club of Washington and the usual European
suspects) - is that everything is still to be negotiated with Iran over its
nuclear dossier. Lula is adamant: Iran has a right to develop a peaceful
nuclear program in terms of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it is
Brazil is currently a rotating member of the United Nations Security Council.
As much as China, it will not support new US-driven sanctions on Iran -
regardless of US Secretary of State Robert Gates spinning that the US has
enough backing to advance a fourth, tough round of sanctions, with Saudi Arabia
finally persuading China. China will never vote against its own national
security interest - and Iran is a matter of Chinese national security. Lula
will be in Tehran in May and will meet - again - with President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad. Hardline Zionists are - what else - fuming.
Lula knows very well that so-called "smart sanctions" that would apply mainly
to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) - in charge of the bulk of
economic and political power in Iran - would also affect millions of civilians
connected to IRGC-controlled businesses, and thus the population at large,
which is already paying the price for the current sanctions. The IRGC controls
at least 60 ports in the Persian Gulf. Preventing Asia from doing business with
Iran would imply a naval blockade - and that's a declaration of war.
How not to push Iran
Lula has hit the Middle East at a crucial juncture - just as Netanyahu's
government has decided to build more settlements in East Jerusalem and the West
Bank, even to the detriment of crucial US support on the Iranian front.
Ironically, it's on the economic front, rather than geopolitics, that Brazil is
managing to seduce the Israeli establishment. Israel signed a free-trade
agreement (FTA) with Mercosur  - the fifth-largest bloc in terms of gross
domestic product in the world - much to the chagrin of Palestinians, who
identify the FTA as a powerful boost to the Israeli military-industrial
And this when it is clear that Brazil is strictly in favor of a viable
Palestinian state according to the 1967 borders. This FTA carries a key
strategic provision - it allows the transfer of weapons technology to Mercosur
members. Thus weapons responsible for the repression in Gaza will soon be
available in South America.
On a parallel front, bolstering Brazil's role as mediator, Israeli President
Shimon Peres personally suggested to Lula that Brazil could make two visits -
by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and by Netanyahu - coincide on Brazilian
soil. Assad goes to Brazil this year, and this week Netanyahu also accepted an
invitation. A tropical, informal Syrian-Israeli summit might be ideal to break
the ice. Lula and Netanyahu have adopted a bilateral system of meetings between
heads of state and top ministers every two years.
By what about the US in all this? An official US-Brazil strategic agreement is
also now in place, implying two foreign minister-level meetings a year, one in
the US, one in Brazil. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim has a very close
relationship with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On her recent visit to
Brazil, Clinton pressed both Lula and Amorim to support tougher sanctions on
Iran. The refusal was polite but firm.
Clinton was left to complain at a press conference about how Iran is "using"
Brazil, Turkey and China to evade sanctions. Amorim for his part is always fond
of remembering the Iraqi disaster: "I was an ambassador at the UN during the
critical moments of deciding about Iraq. And what we saw was a big mistake."
Lula could not be more specific: "It is not wise to push Iran against the wall.
I want for Iran what I want for Brazil: to use nuclear energy for peaceful
ends. If Iran goes beyond that, then we will not agree with it." Roughly,
that's the same position as China's.
Lula and Obama had seemed to be in synch on Iran, starting from their meeting
on the sidelines of a Group of Eight plus five meeting in L'Aquila, Italy, nine
months ago. Then, Obama even encouraged the Brasilia-Tehran dialogue, as long
as Brazil pressed on Iran the commitment to a strictly civilian nuclear
program. That's exactly what Lula told Ahmadinejad when they met in Brazil. It
is the Obama administration's position that has substantially hardened.
Brazilian diplomats insist that Ahmadinejad never closed the door to
negotiations. In discreet, bilateral diplomatic talks, US officials even admit
to their Brazilian counterparts that Ahmadinejad himself is not inflexible, nor
is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In a February 19 speech at the naming
of an Iranian destroyer, Khamenei once again denied that Iran was after nuclear
weapons and stressed that they were illegal according to Islamic law because
they killed large numbers of innocent civilians.
The problem has been amplified by much American and European media hype.
Defusing the sanctions drum rolls, even Clinton, in a moment of candor during
her South American trip, was forced to admit that sanctions could take "several
months" to be adopted, if at all.
Even before Clinton's visit, Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had
already admitted to Brazilian media on the record that Brazil could be a
"bridge” between Iran and the US/European Union front, because of its "realist"
position. Mottaki does not see Brazil as a "mediator" - but rather as "acting
to facilitate consultations", as Tehran does not believe that any country
should speak for its (Tehran's) own interests.
Neither did Brasilia explicitly ask to be a mediator. Mottaki has revealed he's
developing substantial "telephone diplomacy" with Amorim. Tehran obviously sees
the benefits of establishing a dialogue channel to the industrialized West via
a key developing country.
The BRICS as the new superpower
Lula's strategy of trying to position himself as a "bridge" should be
especially welcomed as the Iranian dossier reaches a crucial stage at which
hardline factions within the US/EU/Israel are doing everything to disregard any
intelligence that doubts Iran is building a nuclear bomb; there have been
systematic attempts to "fix" intelligence to suggest that they are (echoes of
Lula stepping into the arena also means one more instance of the BRICs (Brazil,
Russia, India, China) acting as a new rival superpower to an increasingly
disoriented "full spectrum dominance" US. None of the BRICs is in favor of
isolation of, not to mention an attack on, Iran. This is the case as long as
they believe that Iran, according to all available evidence, is nowhere near a
nuclear weapon, and an attack would inevitably accelerate nuclear proliferation
in the Persian Gulf.
The BRICs also know that the US and Iran are able to collaborate on thorny
dossiers - such as over Afghanistan.
That leaves the strategic agenda of the proverbial elephant in the room -
Israel - on the table. So it's time for the BRICs to call Israel's bluff.
If the Netanyahu government in Israel can humiliate both Obama and Biden on
expanded Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, it's fair to
assume it could ignore the pleas of the chairman of the US joint chiefs of
staff, Mike Mullen, who has warned that an attack on Iran would be a "big, big,
big problem for all of us".
Israel (as well as Washington) may simply want regime change in Iran by any
means necessary. Israel may go nuclear - using bunker-busting tactical nukes to
destroy Iranian nuclear facilities. Israel may be ready to unleash preventive
war - a staple of Israeli policy fully adopted by the George W Bush
administration. And Israel certainly counts on the US for logistical and
Lula hasn't gone that far. But his positioning contains the embryo of all these
thorny questions with which the BRICs should confront Israel. Then the whole
world will know which tale is really wagging the dog.
1. Mercosur or Mercosul (Spanish: Mercado Comun del Sur) is a regional trade
agreement between Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela.