x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Brazil's Lula takes a 'last big shot' at Tehran

The Brazilian president meets senior leaders to try to agree a last-minute compromise before the G15 summit on Iran's nuclear programme.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, welcomes Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during an official welcoming ceremony in Tehran yesterday.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, welcomes Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during an official welcoming ceremony in Tehran yesterday.

Brazil's charismatic president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, met Iran's most-senior leaders yesterday to try to broker an 11th-hour compromise in the increasingly tense stand-off over Tehran's nuclear programme.

If Iran gives ground, any announcement is likely to be made at a summit of Group 15 leaders in Tehran today. That way, Iran could present progress as a triumph for diplomacy by independent, developing nations - rather than as a retreat before western, big-power pressure, analysts said. In a belated change of plan, Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has decided to join the talks, Turkish media reported last night.

Iran hailed this as a significant sign of progress in the negotiations. Mr Erdogan had signalled on Friday that he would not join his foreign minister, Ahmet Davotoglu, in Tehran unless there was the chance of a genuine breakthrough. The United States described Mr Lula's high-profile nuclear diplomacy as the "last big shot" before further sanctions are imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

Mr Lula yesterday held talks with Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and later with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all key policy issues. "America is angry over the proximity of independent countries such as Iran and Brazil. That is why they made a fuss ahead of your trip to Iran," Mr Khamenei told state television about Mr Lula's visit. Iran and Brazil talked up the likelihood of a breakthrough but the US, Russia and analysts in Tehran remain highly sceptical.

A member of Brazil's 300-strong delegation said his country was "optimistic" about the outcome of the nuclear talks. "There are still ongoing negotiations and we have to wait until the end of the talks [today]." The G15 comprises 17 countries from Asia, Africa and South America. It "is an anti-colonialist alliance and Iran may want to show its more constructive face to that grouping", said a senior former European diplomat to Tehran, who requested anonymity.

Iran's official media mostly ignored the nuclear issue while focusing on bilateral relations. Iran and Brazil were due to sign numerous trade agreements. Mr Ahmadinejad remains in a weak position following his disputed re-election last June. It is doubtful whether he can deliver a deal now - even if he wants to, experts said. Any significant concession "will alienate even his most ardent supporters ? who will see it as treachery", said an Iranian analyst in Tehran, speaking on condition of anonymity. Mr Ahmadinejad's opponents, meanwhile, are concerned that a nuclear breakthrough would alleviate international pressure on his regime, enabling it to deal even more harshly with domestic challenges.

Brazil and Turkey, non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, oppose further sanctions against Iran but have good relations with Washington and are keen to show they are neutral brokers. They are trying to reboot an eight-month-old, UN-brokered agreement under which Iran would send the bulk of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile to Russia and France for further refinement into fuel rods for a medical research reactor in Tehran.

The Ahmadinejad administration in recent weeks has appeared keen to revive the stalled agreement. The US, however, suspects Iran is filibustering in the hope of staving off further sanctions. But Mr Lula's Tehran visit "was not impeding progress" on this front, Washington insisted. Russia, a nominal ally of Iran, has seemingly tired of Tehran's procrastination and agreed to step up negotiations on new sanctions, the White House has said.

Moscow's agreement would leave China as the last remaining holdout among the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council. Iran originally accepted the fuel-swap deal - essentially a confidence-building measure - but soon backtracked, insisting that the exchange takes place simultaneously and only on its own territory. The Iranian counter-offer was rejected by the US and European powers because it undercut the main purpose of the deal: to delay by several months Iran's ability to build a nuclear bomb.

Tehran insists its uranium enrichment programme is solely peaceful in nature. The key to a breakthrough now depends on Iran accepting an LEU exchange in a friendly third country, such as Brazil or Turkey. The fuel swap could take place in Turkey, Turkish media reported last night. But the West also insists that any swap cannot be simultaneous: Iran must give up its LEU before receiving the fuel rods.

"A simultaneous exchange, however, seems to be the Iranians' red line which they will not be able to cross without totally losing face domestically," the analyst in Tehran said. A genuine breakthrough would ease fears over Iran's nuclear programme, while Washington could use any failure to argue that an intransigent Tehran has shunned even a helping hand from one of its friends. Should Mr Lula fail, Brazil is likelier to abstain or even vote against Iran at the next UN Security Council sanctions vote, analysts said.

"The biggest loser in this scenario will be Mr Ahmadinejad's administration which, having again raised expectations with its last-minute frantic diplomacy, will have to deal with a much more pro-sanctions international environment," Farideh Farhi, a leading Iran scholar at the University of Hawaii, said in an interview. There is a possibility, analysts said, that Iran will agree to a compromise that satisfies G15 members such as Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Indonesia - but which will not placate US and European powers.

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae