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 conflict.
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 a signatory.
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 complex.
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 Iraq?)
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 political support.
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.