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President of Brazil Criticized in U.S. for Hosting Ahmadinejad

November 24th, 2009
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva embrace in Brasilia on Monday

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva embrace in Brasilia on Monday

Brazilian President Lula’s warm embrace of Iran’s President Ahmadinejad comes at a time when the U.S. and others are trying to isolate Tehran and ratchet up pressure on the regime over its nuclear activities.

Welcoming Ahmadinejad with a hug and prolonged handshake on the first visit by an Iranian leader to Brazil since the Islamic revolution, da Silva reaffirmed Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program.

He also voiced opposition to further sanctions against Tehran, saying Iran should “continue engaging interested countries to seek a just and balanced solution” to the nuclear dispute.

Although Ahmadinejad has visited Latin American before – raising concerns in the U.S. and Israel about growing Iranian influence in the hemisphere – analysts see this visit in a different light, given Brazil’s increasing stature.

“Brazil’s growing influence on the global stage means that leaders with whom the president of Brazil chooses to meet gain greater credibility and, indeed, legitimacy through those meetings,” Council of the Americas vice-president Eric Farnsworth said ahead of the visit.

Noting that the trip was occurring while other countries sought to isolate Iran over the nuclear issue and its sponsorship of terrorism, Farnsworth said he hoped the Brazilians would deliver a strong message, covering nuclear non-proliferation and respect for human rights.

“These are two sovereign countries – they are able to meet with whomever they want,” he said. “But with growing profile and growing influence also comes greater responsibility.”

Brazil, the world’s fourth-biggest democracy, is pushing for a larger international role, leading developing countries at the G20 and other forums and seeking a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, should drawn-out attempts to reshape the body ever bear fruit.

Da Silva’s willingness to host Ahmadinejad even as President Obama warns of fresh sanctions “within weeks” if Iran continues to reject the latest in a series of international offers aimed at resolving the nuclear standoff, has drawn fire at home and in the U.S.

Members of the Brazil’s 97,000-strong Jewish community, the second-largest in Latin America, joined other Brazilians in protesting the visit, with thousands demonstrating in various cities in recent days.

Also protesting the visit was Jose Serra, the governor of Sao Paulo state and a leading contender in the race to succeed da Silva in elections scheduled for next October.

In an opinion piece published in Sao Paulo Monday, Serra said it was one thing to have diplomatic ties with dictatorships, but another “to welcome their leaders in your home.”

‘Senseless to isolate Iran’

The Mercopress news agency also quoted Serra as describing Ahmadinejad as “a pathetic character who denies the Holocaust” and comparing his repressive policies at home to “Stalinist processes.”

He said he regretted Brazil welcoming “with open arms” a man whose recently-appointed defense minister is wanted in connection with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

(Argentine investigators believe Iran was behind the suicide truck bombing, which killed 85 people and was the deadliest terrorist attack in the country’s history. Judicial authorities in 2006 issued arrest warrants for eight senior Iranians, including a former president and top military figures, among them Ahmadinejad’s new defense minister, Ahmad Vahidi. Tehran has consistently denied any role.)

Serra, a center-right politician who ran unsuccessfully against the incumbent in 2002, is leading in opinion polls 11 months before the election. In the most recent poll, released Monday, he leads a member of da Silva’s center-left party by 32-22 points.

In an earlier radio program, da Silva defended the decision to host the Iranian leader.

“If Iran is a major player in all this conflict, it is important for someone to sit with Iran, talk to them so we can return to some sort of normality in the Middle East,” he said. “It is senseless to isolate Iran.”

Observers believe da Silva may be eyeing a diplomatic role in the Middle East. In recent weeks he has hosted both Israeli President Shimon Peres – the first official visit by an Israeli head of state since the 1960s – and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas. During his visit, Peres failed to persuade da Silva to shun Ahmadinejad.

‘Dangerous influence’

In the U.S., criticism of the Brazilian visit has come from Rep. Eliot Engel (D.-N.Y.), chairman of a House subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, who recently convened a hearing on Iran’s involvement in the region.

Engel in a statement said da Silva was “making a serious error.”

“Brazil is a rapidly modernizing democratic country which wants to join the U.N. Security Council and be a world leader,” he said. “I truly hope Brazil reaches that point, but expanding ties to Ahmadinejad is not the way to get there.”

Also critical was Florida Rep. Connie Mack, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee.

“Brazil must not follow in the footsteps of [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez by embracing Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and allowing him to spread his dangerous influence throughout Latin America,” he said.

Mack is supporting a move by Sen. George LeMieux, the newly-appointed Florida Republican, to block the administration’s nomination of Tom Shannon to be U.S. ambassador to Brazil.

He cited concerns about the administration’s approach to Latin America, particularly with regard to Cuba and Honduras.

‘New orders’

Iran’s Irna news agency reported that “hundreds” of people gathered in Brasilia to welcome Ahmadinejad, “in reaction to a rally held by supporters of the Zionist regime” opposed to the visit.

Brazil’s Globo television showed footage of supporters, including women in headscarves and burqas, waving Iranian and Palestinian flags and chanting the Iranian’s name.

Ahmadinejad, who will visit allies Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales after his one-day stay in Brazil, said before leaving Tehran that “new orders should established in the world.”

“Iran, Brazil and Venezuela in particular can have determining roles in designing and establishing these new orders,” Iranian state television quoted him as saying.

Some 200 Iranian businessmen are traveling with the president.

By Patrick Goodenough

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