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 permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the US, Britain, France, Russia and China, with some input from the 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 these issues, and are starting to have some success in pressing their case for inclusion. Brazil has been a leader in these efforts.
The most striking example of this shift is the recent willingness of Brazil and Turkey to challenge the leadership of the United States on the question of responding to Iran’s nuclear program.
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 and Iraq.
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.
But 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.
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 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 that most Brazilians come to see these initiatives not as 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.]