Friday, March 5, 2010

Is Washington Building a Pro-Iran Coalition?

To the degree that Washington maintains a hard line against Iran while ignoring the interests of rising global powers caught in the middle, it risks alienating pro-U.S. moderates and thereby undermining global U.S. influence. In the current circumstances of historic recession and the over-commitment of U.S. forces in wars that seem endless, the frittering away of diplomatic influence through U.S. diplomatic blunders (e.g., Hillary’s public comments in Saudi Arabia about pressuring China and her public pressuring of Brazil) may prove more significant than Washington decision makers enamored of military solutions imagine.

The above thesis is complicated and will hardly be resolved in this essay. The main point here is simply that someone in Washington who cares about national security should be doing the math – working through the exercise of estimating the real value of the various forms of power at Washington’s disposal. Economic power is declining, military power is proving less effective than was anticipated by those who lauded its use, and diplomatic power—crippled by the loss of prestige as well as misuse under the neo-cons—continues to be wasted by misuse under Obama.

One example of the potential cost of Washington’s lack, shall we say, of diplomatic finesse is provided by Live Trading News’ March 5 report, “Iran and Brazil, Banking and Energy:

When Mr. Ahmadinejad paid a visit to Brazil in May 2009, Iranian EDBI and Brazilian banking officials drafted a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that on its surface is just a agreement to facilitate trade between the two countries. But facilitating banking cooperation could mean a lot of things, including the establishment of Iranian banks in Brazil to bypass the US sanctions efforts.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that an emerging global power in Latin America might have a problem with Washington ostracizing a country it does not like by pressuring the world to join an economic war against that country. Given the history of U.S.-Latin American relations right up to the present day, it would take very little imagination for any Brazilian leader to put his own country in the place of Iran at some point in the future.

It is quite clear that Washington is trying to teach the world a lesson – that countries that do not accept the contemporary alignment of global power with the U.S. on top and Israel having a set of special privileges will get punished. It should also be clear to all why Brazil resists learning that lesson.

The same Live Trading News report also provides a second example of how a hard-line Washington stance could be counterproductive:

Next there is the controversial nuclear energy issue. Reports showed up in the Brazilian press on February 26 indicating that Brazil’s Office of Institutional Security, which answers only to the President, has begun consultations with technicians in Brazil’s nuclear program to establish what points can be included in a possible nuclear deal with Iran that could be signed during da Silva’s visit to Iran this May. 

The O Globo news report does not specify what points of co-operation are being considered, but Brazil reportedly is working on a new Uranium refining technique called Magnetic Levitation, which is being developed by its Navy Department at Aramar Labs in Sao Paulo.

The news Report follows a Brazilian announcement from early Y 2009 that the country is pursuing uranium enrichment on an industrial scale, with a goal to produce 12 tonnes of enriched uranium for nuclear power supply.

So Brazil not only is working toward self sufficiency in nuclear power but also may be positioning itself to become a supplier of nuclear fuel for the global market.

Punishing Iran for developing nuclear technology (as opposed to actual weaponization) is also a policy that only the naïve can expect Brazil to find palatable. Brazil is, after all, a nuclear-knowledgeable state itself with an active and innovative technical program that includes efforts to master uranium enrichment, as reported by Nuclear Power Daily’s website on February 4, 2010. Any precedent that prevented Iran from pursuing nuclear technology because it challenges the preeminence of the U.S.-Israeli team in the Mideast could easily become grounds for a future challenge to Brazil’s independence from U.S. control in Latin America. The linkage between a foreign policy independent from the U.S. and denial of the right to pursue nuclear technology is also going to stick in the throat of almost any Brazilian leader.

British journalist Jonathan Fryer has interesting comments on the double standard in U.S. nuclear policy and Brazil’s stance on his blog and Pepe Escobar’s November 26, 2009 review of the key significance of growing Iranian-Brazilian commercial ties in “Welcome to the Luladinejad Axis” on the Asia Times website provides the broad picture of why Brazil is sees Iran as a valuable partner.

Pressuring Brazil rather than negotiating with it risk pushing Brazil into both an economic sanctions breaker and a direct supplier to Iran of nuclear technology.

Conservatives always deny that the world is changing (the Chernenkos of the world should be remembered, not laughed at – they have a real lesson to teach us about the impermanence of things). The world is changing today. When an empire has to spend $3 trillion dollars (figure from Stiglitz) to knock off a petty dictator, it is losing control. At that cost, the conquest of Iraq was an historic defeat for U.S. power. It is not at all clear that Washington can afford to alienate the likes of Brazil and Turkey by demanding their obedience while ignoring their interests.

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