Sao Paulo - For the last several decades, fundamental international
issues of war and peace have been largely determined by a small group
of countries, especially the five permanent members of the United
Nations Security Council, the US, Britain, France, Russia and China,
with some occasional input from other so-called G7 industrial
democracies: Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan. The five permanent
members of the UN Security Council each have a veto over UN Security
Council resolutions; they are also the only countries recognized as
nuclear-weapon states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
We are now at a new moment in international relations, in which
countries outside of the permanent members of the Security Council and
their handpicked allies are insisting on having some meaningful input
into global issues of war and peace, and are starting to have some
success in pressing their case for inclusion. Brazil has been a leader
in these efforts.
A striking example of this shift is the
willingness of Brazil and Turkey to challenge the leadership of
the United States on the question of responding to Iran's nuclear
The governments of the United States, Britain and France are currently
working to get new economic sanctions imposed against Iran in the
United Nations Security Council, as punishment for Iran's refusal to
suspend the enrichment of uranium. Iran says it needs enriched uranium
to supply its civilian nuclear power program and its medical research
reactor, but the US has accused Iran of having ambitions to acquire a
nuclear weapon. Until now, as far as anyone knows, Iran has only
produced low-enriched uranium, which cannot be used to produce a
nuclear weapon. However, a stockpile of low-enriched uranium could be
further enriched to weapons-grade - although this is not a trivial
task, technically or politically - and therefore an increase in the
size of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium does in a sense move
Iran closer to having the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon.
The enrichment of uranium by Iran or other non-nuclear weapons states
is not a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it is
generally acknowledged that the NPT gives Iran the right to enrich
uranium. Indeed, given that Germany, Japan, Argentina, Brazil and the
Netherlands enrich uranium and are non-nuclear weapons state
signatories of the NPT, the non-discrimination provision of Article 4
clearly suggests that the right to enrich uranium should extend to
Iran as well.
But the position of the U.S. and its closest allies for the last
several years has been that Iran must be compelled to forfeit its
right to enrich uranium, even for a purely peaceful nuclear program,
since the technological knowledge that Iran is acquiring by enriching
uranium could be diverted towards a military program in the future,
and since Iran has not been completely transparent about its nuclear
program, and has not assured other countries that its intentions for
its nuclear program in the future are purely non-military.
While it is true that Iran has not been completely transparent about
its activities, motivations, and intentions, there is a significant
difference of opinion between countries and even within the United
States about what this implies and what should be done about it.
In fact, there is a growing body of opinion among Western analysts
that Iran's goal is not the acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but the
acquisition of the technological knowledge to assemble the components
of a nuclear weapon without actually building one and without
violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Since Iran could place
itself in a position where it could quickly move towards acquiring a
nuclear weapon if attacked, this approach could give Iran much of the
benefit of acquiring a nuclear weapon as a deterrent against Western
attack without subjecting Iran to the negative political and economic
consequences of openly violating the treaty.
The U.S. goal has not been merely to prevent Iran from acquiring a
nuclear weapon - the U.S. goal has been to prevent Iran from acquiring
the deterrent benefits of getting close to acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The United States has been engaged in a struggle for influence with
Iran in the region, most notably in Iraq, but also in Lebanon, among
the Palestinians, in Afghanistan and among the predominantly Sunni
Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. It is widely believed in
Washington that if Iran believes itself and is believed by others to
be effectively immune from the threat of a U.S. military attack, this
will dramatically increase Iran's influence in the region at the
expense of the United States.
This belief that allowing Iran to use its nuclear program as a
deterrent against attack would increase Iran's influence in the region
at the expense of the United States has created a near-consensus in
Washington that the U.S. cannot be content with merely preventing Iran
from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the U.S. must prevent Iran from
deriving security benefits from having a peaceful nuclear program.
But it is far from obvious how the United States can effectively go
about doing this. U.S. officials have stated that a U.S. military
attack on Iran would at most delay Iran's capacity to acquire a
nuclear weapon by a few years, while providing political justification
for an Iranian decision to do so. A pre-emptive U.S. military attack
against Iran would be a grave violation of international law, which
would cause severe political damage to the United States, like the
political damage done to the U.S. by the 2003 invasion of Iraq in
defiance of the UN. And a U.S. military attack could have extremely
negative consequences for the U.S. in terms of Iranian retaliation in
the region, at time when the U.S. has 150,000 troops in Afghanistan
So the United States has sought to contain Iran's nuclear program with
new UN sanctions.
But in order to get new Security Council sanctions against Iran, of
course the United States needs the cooperation of others. It needs the
cooperation of Russia and China, partly because Russia and China are
permanent members of the Security Council and therefore could in
theory veto any new sanctions resolution, and partly because new
economic sanctions would in any event require Russian and Chinese
cooperation, because Russia and China have strong economic ties with
Iran, and its energy sector in particular.
And the U.S. also needs the support of countries outside of the
permanent five. According to UN procedure, to achieve a new sanctions
resolution at the UN, the US needs not only to avoid a veto by one of
the permanent five, it needs the affirmative support of nine members
of the 15-member Security Council. As it stands now at least Brazil,
Turkey and Lebanon, currently rotating members of the council, are
likely to vote no or abstain. There may be other dissenters, and since
a key US goal is to be perceived as successfully isolating Iran
politically, it would undermine U.S. goals to win approval of a
sanctions resolution on a vote of 9-6.
Until recently, most of the attention has been on whether the US can
induce Russia and China to go along with new sanctions. But now
Brazil, together with Turkey, is pushing strongly for a diplomatic
resolution to the crisis, rather than new sanctions, and recent
press reports have suggested that Brazil's recent diplomatic
initiative has had at least the effect of delaying a UN vote, while
Brazil and Turkey, acting as mediators, work to revive a proposal from
last year in which Iran would ship some of its stock of low-enriched
uranium out of the country in return for receiving higher-enriched
uranium for its medical research reactor, which produces medical
isotopes for the treatment of cancer. Brazil's Foreign Minister Amorim
has stated that Brazil's recent interactions with the U.S. on the
issue suggest that the U.S. may be willing to compromise.
The proposal for the fuel swap, which was initially strongly backed by
the U.S., would have some of the benefits to the U.S. of compelling
Iran to suspend enrichment; namely, by using up some of Iran's stock
of low-enriched uranium, it would push back the date by which Iran
would have enough low-enriched uranium, if it were enriched further,
to produce a nuclear weapon.
On the other hand, the proposal for the fuel swap is much more
palatable in Iran than suspending enrichment, a non-starter. In Iran,
the demand to suspend enrichment is widely seen as tantamount to a
demand that Iran give up its nuclear program completely, which is in
turn widely seen as a broad attack on Iranian technological progress.
Brazil has likened the current push for expanded sanctions against
Iran to the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In particular,
Brazil has expressed the fear that expanding sanctions now will
undermine the prospects of a diplomatic solution and therefore set the
stage for war later, just as the imposition and maintenance of
U.S./U.N. sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s set the stage for the
Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq in 2003.
If Brazil, working together with Turkey and other countries, succeeds
in brokering a deal between the U.S. and Iran on Iran's nuclear file,
by avoiding a new war that could save the lives of many thousands of
people. And in addition, the cost of war is not simply measurable in
the lives lost and the money expended directly in the armed conflict.
It also costs the world something to be distracted from other issues.
When the world is talking about Iran's nuclear program, it's not
talking about responding to the threat of climate chaos, or meeting
the UN goals for reducing poverty, or guaranteeing the right of the
Palestinians to national self-determination.
Brazil's effort to prevent war between the West and Iran and secure a
diplomatic agreement should be commended: indeed, it's the sort of
effort for which the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded in the past.
In 1906, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Peace Nobel
for brokering the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese
war, saving, some have estimated, a quarter of a million lives,
according to Fredrik Stanton's new book, Great
Negotiations: Agreements that Changed the Modern World .
Now Brazil is experiencing a Presidential election campaign, and some
in the opposition are opportunistically attacking the current foreign
policy of Brazil as being "ideological." But this is a thinly veiled
appeal to a "pragmatism" in which Brazil would accept that Washington
calls all the shots. The world can't afford any more of this kind of
"pragmatism," which would likely lead to more Washington-initiated
bloodbaths like Iraq. In the months ahead, I hope most Brazilians
continue to see these peace initiatives not as President Lula's
foreign policy, but as Brazil's foreign policy, so that no matter who
wins the election, Brazil will still be a global leader for peace.
This is adapted from a presentation given May 3rd to the Global
Affairs workshop of the International Relations course at the Escola
Superior de Propaganda e Marketing, Sao Paulo, Brazil .]