Silva's Brazil star shines brighter with Iran deal

The leader famously popular at home and abroad is soon leaving office to a more-obscure successor, even as he looks for new challenges of his own.

Ahmadinejad, Erdogan, Da Silva et al (photo credit: Associated Press)
Ahmadinejad, Erdogan, Da Silva et al
(photo credit: Associated Press)
SAO PAULO — Brazil's president says Iran's agreement to a nuclear fuel deal he helped craft proves his nation has finally become a new global power broker.
Yet most of the credit headed Brazil's way may well go to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva himself. The leader famously popular at home and abroad is soon leaving office to a more-obscure successor, even as he looks for new challenges of his own.
"Clearly this is a huge political home run for Lula," said Christopher Garman, who heads Latin American research for the Eurasia Group consulting firm in Washington. "He has rounded up the end of his term in a big way: He used his personal political capital and is playing a role in the Middle East."
Silva is a long-standing icon of Latin America's Marxist-influenced left, who enchanted investors by embracing market-friendly policies as president. With a jovial, plain-talking style forged as a labor leader, he bonded with former US president George W. Bush and with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He traded jokes with US President Barack Obama and bear hugs with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Silva portrayed the deal as a victory for his own nation and for another emerging power, Turkey, which has opposed US and European efforts to impose sanctions on Iran for its nuclear fuel enrichment. Analysts said their stand may have made it easier for Iran to accept a compromise that might have looked like a capitulation if it was brokered by a less friendly country.
Silva has long urged a greater global role for developing nations — and a bigger place in a United Nations now dominated by a handful of countries that are permanent members of the Security Council.
"Brazil believed that it was possible to reach a deal," Silva said Monday on his weekly radio program, recorded in Teheran after the deal was signed. "I think that diplomacy came out victorious today. I think it was a result that shows we can build peace through dialogue."
It's not clear if the deal will satisfy the international community, though it is similar to a UN-drafted plan, backed by Washington and its allies, meant to deprive Iran of enough stocks of enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon.
The Turkish-Brazilian negotiating effort bucked the wishes of a skeptical White House. While Washington said the outcome could be a "positive step," Iran then said it would keep enriching uranium on its own, something that could help it develop a nuclear weapon.
Garman said the deal leaves no doubt Brazil is boosting its geopolitical power, and he argued the US will have a hard time rejecting it completely and securing another round of UN sanctions against Iran.
Just getting an agreement out of Iran was a huge international coup for Brazil's first working class president, who has repeatedly argued that his country has earned the right to a permanent, prominent role in international affairs.
During the seven years of Silva's presidency, Latin America's largest economy has seen solid growth, its international reserves have ballooned from $38 billion to $240 billion, inflation has been tamed and some 20 million people have been lifted from poverty.
But Brazil's future influence could dim with the departure of Silva's star power. The leading candidates to succeed him are barely known outside Brazil and don't have his charisma. Whoever wins is likely to initially focus on domestic affairs.
Silva's favored successor is Dilma Rousseff, his former chief of staff. A one-time revolutionary who was tortured during the nation's 1964-1985 dictatorship, she has never run for office before.
The other main candidate, Sao Paulo state governor Jose Serra, is seen as a capable but bland technocrat.
Either will have to spend months stitching together alliances among the 40 parties expected to win seats in Brazil's Congress and will face problems ranging from divvying up revenues from huge new offshore oil finds to reforms of Brazil's Byzantine labor and tax rules.
It could take them years to build up the international clout Silva won through frequent trips abroad and huge domestic popularity - now above 80 percent - that translated into global respect.
"Does the Iran deal mean Brazil will play a significant role after Lula? I think it remains to be seen," Garman said.
Silva has said he won't publicly second guess the actions of his country's next president, but has dropped only hints of what he wants to do next.
He has brushed aside suggestions he could become secretary-general of the United Nations, or president of the World Bank, but has said he wants to promote Latin American integration and use Brazil's experience in easing misery and boosting growth to foster development in Africa.
He's not immune to controversy. Last year, the tough-talking Silva made headlines when he blamed the global financial meltdown on "white people with blue eyes" while standing next to Britain's prime minister.
Analysts agreed the Iran deal could help catapult him into nearly any international leadership position he wants.
"Will Lula use this capital to propel himself into another position? Of course. He'll be an ex-president in search of a role he does not want to abandon," said Alexandre Barros, who runs the Early Warning political risk group in Brasilia.