From the Monroe Doctrine, which was aimed at curbing the encroachments of European powers in the nineteenth century, to Cold War foreign policy, designed to forestall the geopolitical machinations of the Soviet Union in the twentieth century, Washington has stopped at nothing in its bid to maintain power and prestige within its own regional "back yard" of Latin America. But with all of those rivalries now a relic of the past, the U.S. is moving on to the next threat to its own hegemony: Iran. That, at least, is the impression I got from reading diplomatic cables which were recently released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks.
For Washington, a great concern was that Iran might gain a strategic foothold in South America, recruiting key allies such as Brazil. Much to the chagrin of the Americans, Brazil under former president Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva sought to carve out a more independent foreign policy which even embraced the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By extending cooperation to Iran, Lula aimed to increase trade and boost collaboration on biotechnology and agriculture. In a surprising development, Lula even urged the west to drop its threats of punishment over Iran's nuclear program, a move which proved very reassuring to the politically isolated Ahmadinejad.
Throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, U.S. officials in Brasilia sought to glean more information about this budding relationship, sound out disaffected politicians, and express displeasure about growing diplomatic ties between Teheran and Brasilia when need be. Key in this effort was U.S. ambassador in Brasilia Clifford Sobel, who pressured the Brazilian Ministry of Energy to cut its burgeoning ties to Iran. Speaking to government officials, Sobel expressed deep concern over Brazilian state energy company Petrobras, which had been considering plans to invest in the Iranian oil and gas sector, located in the Caspian Sea.
The Petrobras Imbroglio
WikiLeaks correspondence reveals Brazilian diplomats as walking a very fine tight rope, striking out on the one hand toward rogue nations like Iran but on the other hand very keen on placating the Bush administration and staying within Washington's good graces. Responding to Sobel, the Brazilians argued that if they did not invest in Iran then the Chinese would certainly beat them when it came time to develop deep water exploration and production. However, the Brazilians also "acknowledged the seriousness of the issue [Brazilian-Iranian energy ties] to the international community and, although they did not say Petrobras would halt its… activities in Iran, they did make it clear that they understand the sensitivity of the political moment."
In a further effort to shore up energy ties, Brazilian under Secretary for Political Affairs Roberto Jaguaribe met with Iranian Vice Foreign Minister Alireza Sheikh Attar some time later. "In particular," U.S. diplomats noted, "Iran was fishing for increased Petrobras investment, although the Iranians seem to be growing impatient with Petrobras' unresponsiveness." Concerned about the situation, the Americans again pressed Brasilia to clarify. Petrobras would not be bullied into any rash decisions by Teheran, government authorities stressed, and the company was unlikely to increase its stake in Iran in the near term. "Indications that Petrobras is winding down its operations in Iran is a positive sign," noted Sobel, but the sanguine diplomat was quick to add that Brazil was "playing it both ways" with Washington and Teheran.
In late 2008, Sobel was still pleased that Brazil was "trying to assuage our concerns" on Iran. Nevertheless, the ambassador had grown concerned, writing the State Department that "we will need to intensify our dialogue…if we hope to sway the government of Brazil that this is not the moment for increased engagement with Tehran." Confiding in the Americans, Brazilian officials claimed that their country was "under tremendous pressure from Iran…to increase Petrobras investment." Though Brazilian officials continued to stress that Petrobras was not considering any further investments in Iran, they also believed there was much "trade to be done between the two countries."
At the Rio Defense Fair
In the realm of defense, too, U.S. diplomats were eager to head off any growing ties between Brasilia and Teheran. In April, 2007 the Americans received worrying reports about Iranian participation at a Latin American Air and Defense show to be held in Rio de Janeiro, which had been organized by a U.K.-based firm. When he found an Iranian stand at the event, which stood in violation of United Nations Security Council strictures, an organizer grew alarmed and immediately contacted the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also known as Itamaraty.
The Brazilians claimed they were unaware of the Iranian presence at the show, and would take steps to shut down the Iranian stand. In Teheran, meanwhile, the Brazilian ambassador was dressed down by the Iranians who vigorously protested the treatment. Why had they been invited to the show and then subsequently shut down, the Iranians wanted to know? Defensively, the Brazilian ambassador countered that the invitation had been issued well before the issuing of United Nations Security Council measures.
It would seem that the Brazilians were acting in good faith and in accordance with international law, but both Britain and the U.S. were still unsure where the Lula government stood. When asked by the British if they would act to seize any assets belonging to the Iranian Defense Industries, Lula officials explained that no such interests existed in Brazil. For their part, the Americans were a bit mystified about Brazilian intentions and wondered whether the authorities actually ordered the closing of the Iranian stand or merely "stood back" and left the closing of the booth to the show's UK-based organizing firm.
U.S. concern over defense-related matters continued well into the Obama era, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton's secret cable to the American Embassy in Brasilia. The new Secretary of State requested that diplomats alert the Lula government to a possible effort by the Iranian firm Machine Sazi Tabriz to acquire machine tools from a Brazilian company called Mello S.A. Maquinas e Equipamentos. Sazi Tabriz, Clinton explained, was the largest manufacturer of machine tools in Iran and had provided tools to the Islamic Republic's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Brazilian export of machine tools to the company, Clinton elaborated, could therefore be diverted to Iran's weapons programs.
Senator Fortes Sounds the Alarm
Concerned over Iranian-Brazilian ties, U.S. diplomats conferred with dissident politicians opposed to Lula's more independent foreign policy. In Brasilia, a "handful" of legislators had started to worry about the independent trajectory of Lula's foreign policy. One of those politicians, opposition Senator Heraclito Fortes of the Democrats Party, breathlessly called the U.S. ambassador in late 2007. Fortes requested an urgent meeting "to raise a matter he could not discuss on the telephone." As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations and National Defense committees, he apparently saw himself as the last bastion of hope against Lula's more assertive trajectory on the world stage. Sitting down with the ambassador and other embassy staff, including the assistant U.S. army attaché no less, the Brazilian painted an alarmist picture, remarking that he was "truly concerned" about Iranian, Venezuelan and Russian collaboration in the South American theater, including potential financing of arms sales.
According to Fortes, presidential foreign policy advisor Marco Aurelio García had recommended that Ahmadinejad himself visit Brazil, and therefore the U.S. government should become engaged "before it is too late." Growing even more heated and agitated, Fortes accused the Americans of being "indifferent" to what was happening in the region. "You are children," Fortes declared to the startled Americans. "You ignore a problem until it is well along and then it is too late." In order to counteract Iran, Fortes recommended increased U.S. arms manufacturing partnerships with Brazil.
Internal Dissent on Controversial Policy
Fortes continued to seek out American counsel, as evidenced by a further cable dated from April, 2008. This time the Brazilian sounded the alarm bell about Ali Reza Sheikh Attar, who had traveled to Brasilia in hopes of drumming up support for an anti-U.S. bloc in South America. According to Fortes, the Iranian diplomat complained about UN pressure on Iran's nuclear program, and went so far as to claim that after the Olympics, China would purposefully exert pressure on the American dollar by selling off its U.S. investments. Reportedly, Attar told Fortes that these Chinese actions would "be more powerful than an atomic bomb."
On the whole, Fortes declared, it was unlikely that Brazil would ever join in any anti-U.S. crusade in South America, but the politician was concerned about certain figures within the Lula circle including presidential adviser García who was reportedly receptive to Iranian overtures. Itamaraty meanwhile seemed intent on pursuing a "correct" relationship with Iran, and unfortunately there was little that Congress could do to stop such high level diplomacy, save stalling ambassadorial appointments or appealing to public opinion.
Other cables hint at further dissension within the ranks. According to U.S. diplomats, Lula and Itamaraty "were getting pressured on a near-daily basis by Brazilian religious and ethnic minority groups opposed to the Iranian government's activities." Indeed, Brazilian Jews had lobbied high up officials within Lula's Workers' Party, advising the president not to meet with Ahmadinejad. In addition, Brazilian Baha'is and Syrian-Lebanese Christians who had become alarmed by Iranian fundamentalism registered their concerns on a "more ad hoc basis."
Attempt to Reassure U.S. Diplomats
Eager to exploit internal tensions over Brazil's controversial Iran policy, U.S. diplomats continued to press Lula officials on the growing number of meetings between the two countries. "Iran seems to be placing a significant number of eggs in the Brazil basket as part of its strategy for enhancing relations with Latin America," ambassador Sobel noted, "as indicated by the bilateral meetings, the outreach to congress, and the push for a presidential meeting." When pressed by the U.S., Brasilia authorities admitted to the exchanges but claimed that "Iran's interest in Brazil does not begin to approach the level of Iranian links with Venezuela."
Tensions continued into early 2008, when the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia pressed officials to clarify high level diplomacy reaching out to Ahmadinejad. The Americans had grown concerned, noting that Brazil "often tilted uncomfortably towards the anti-U.S. view of things in the Middle East." Again, Lula officials were defensive, claiming that Middle East diplomacy was "necessary to balance Brazil's high-level engagement with the Arab countries." In another tack, the Brazilians stated that it was Iran, and not Brazil, which was pressing most for greater political and economic engagement.
Brasilia officials declared that they were skittish about a potential Lula-Ahmadinejad meeting, and "they were trying to stall such an encounter but that sooner or later they would run out of pretexts and a meeting would become inevitable." Perhaps, American diplomats noted, the Lula government realized that "evenhandedness [was] critical to remain a credible player." By avoiding a presidential meeting with Ahmadinejad, Brazil seemed to be sending a "positive signal that [it] understands its responsibility as a self-proclaimed neutral player."
Turning the discussion to Iran's wider role in South America, the Brazilians sought to appease U.S. concerns. "Bolivia," they noted, "has nothing to offer Iran, commercially or politically." Even the Iranian-Venezuelan alliance, they continued, had "no substance." Overall, the Brazilians downplayed Ahmadinejad's influence, declaring that the Iranian leader, like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, was "more bluster than anything."
Despite such reassurances, Sobel remained unconvinced and, in July, 2008 wrote his superiors that Brazil's continued focus on the Middle East was "worrisome." Overall, the diplomat added, Brazil's "almost obsessive interest in pursuing 'balanced' relations tends to come at our expense, leading the government of Brazil to stay neutral on such issues as Iranian support of Hizballah, Iranian activities in Iraq, and Tehran's flouting of United Nations Security Council resolutions, while remaining blind to aggressive Iranian moves in the region."
In Sobel's view, it was unlikely that the U.S. could persuade Brasilia "to take an approach fully in step with ours." Nevertheless, he added, "it is critical to engage the government of Brazil both to ensure they have a complete understanding of U.S. policy and concerns in the region, and to demonstrate that we take Brazil's leadership aspirations seriously." Accordingly, Sobel urged Washington to send high level authorities "to come to Brasilia for detailed discussions with Brazilian government officials, members of Congress, and, where appropriate, press, regarding Iran nuclear proliferation, support for terrorism."
Sobel then detailed the planned charm offensive. In addition to Fortes, a couple of other Senators had expressed concern with Lula's foreign policy, and the U.S. should therefore "take advantage" of this "window opening up to bridge the gap in our Middle East dialogue." Washington should "seize the opportunity to try to steer Brazil away from its usual role of sideline sniper and make an attempt to recruit Brazil into a helpful or at least truly neutral role."
Obama Officials: Whose Side is Brazil On?
Sideline sniper or genuine ally? That seems to be the question on many U.S. policymakers' minds, including newly appointed Secretary of State Clinton, who sent a detailed questionnaire to subordinates seeking more information on Iran's precise role in South America. In particular, Clinton wanted to know what governments in the wider region sought from Iran, and how they were catering to the desires of the Islamic Republic. In addition, Clinton wanted to know, were Latin American governments concerned about Iran's ties to terrorism? If WikiLeaks cables are any indication, the Americans were perplexed by Iran's political offensive in the region, and had precious little intelligence about the Islamic Republic's diplomatic missions or wider strategic intentions.
Sensing American disquiet, the Brazilians again sought to reassure Washington shortly after Obama's inauguration. Speaking to U.S. diplomats, Lula officials said they had tried their utmost to strike a conciliatory tone with Ahmadinejad, urging the Iranians to "respond positively" to Obama's more multi-faceted approach to foreign affairs. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Roberto Jaguaribe then heaped praise on Obama for striking the "right signal" and "right chords" to the Iranians.
U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Lisa Kubiske, however, was unconvinced by Brazil's double game. In late 2009, she wrote Washington worriedly that Ahmadinejad would likely travel to Brasilia and sign bilateral agreements. Lula and his inner circle of advisors, however, did "not appear to fully grasp the negative feedback that will be created by the Iran visit." Kubiske seems to have believed that Brazil was out of its depth and had only a "small number of experts on the Middle East in Itamaraty." As it punched above its weight, carrying out a "frenzied effort" to reach out to many players in the Middle East, Brazil risked committing "missteps and misunderstandings." Without a clear sense of Brazilian loyalties, Kubiske reiterated the Embassy's earlier request to send Washington Middle East experts to Brasilia for a set of thorough briefings.
WikiLeaks documents leave off in early 2010, but one can be sure that American puzzlement over Brazil continues today. Though Lula's successor Dilma Rousseff has been less of a maverick in foreign affairs than her predecessor, Brazil is certainly a rising power on the world stage and the country will likely throw its weight around, not always to the liking of Washington which expects its regional partners to stay in line and not depart from the age old script.