Brazil Launches Uranium Enrichment Plant

The news that Brazil’s uranium enrichment facility, officially inaugurated back in 2006, will become fully operational in a month presents interesting comparisons to Iran’s program. After all, although it isn’t necessarily hostile to the U.S., Brazil has spearheaded efforts to defend and promote emerging nations’ interests vis à vis the West on a global level, and the U.S. on a regional level. (See Peter Kingstone’s WPR feature article for more.)

In fact, if I had to choose between which of the two, Brazil or Iran, offers a credible pole around which meaningful challenges to America’s interests and influence might coalesce, I’d say it’s Brazil. Like Iran, Brazil has also had a bumpy relationship with the IAEA, initially refusing to allow the agency to inspect the enrichment facility due to proprietary design concerns. Those have apparently been resolved, and Brazil has renounced any nuclear weapons ambitions. But interestingly enough, Brazilian President Lula da Silva expressed skepticism towards the NPT duirng his 2003 election campaign:

If someone asks me to disarm and keep a slingshot while he comes at me with a cannon, what good does that do?

In short, sounds very similar to Iran’s position, with the difference being that Iran has limited its arguments to the right to uranium enrichment, while Lula’s remarks refer to actual weapons.

So, why do we believe Brazil when it says it has no weapons ambitions, and not Iran? For one thing, there’s the matter of trust, which has more to do here with responsible global citizenship than with transparency. Brazil might challenge American and developed nations’ interests, but it does so responsibly in the context of global and regional fora.

There’s also the question of neighborhood. South American integration has muted the kinds of rivalries (in this case between Brazil and Argentina) that would lead to a nuclear arms race. And Brazil has been a major player in encouraging that integration process, rather than in stoking the conflicts that would jeopardize it. (See Shannon O’Neil’s WPR feature article.)

The challenge in any modulation of American policy towards Iran is to find ways of encouraging Iran to adopt a posture closer to that of Brazil, without giving away the farm on the very real conflicts that are already engaged. The Libyan example comes to mind, but I’m not sure Iran would necessarily find Khaddafi’s post-détente role attractive. There’s also the neighborhood question. Khaddafi was a vocal critic of America and the West, but no longer as much of a participant in the Middle East conflicts when he came in from the cold as Iran now is.

Ultimately, getting Iran right will mean getting the Middle East right, which at the moment seems like a pretty tough row to hoe. Welcome to the Oval Office, President-elect Obama. And good luck.