Why Brazil Should Sanction Iran

Everyone expected Russia and China to resist efforts to sanction Iran over its nuclear program. But at the United Nations, America is facing opposition from friends like Turkey and Brazil, too.

This frustrating impasse comes amid a series of challenges to U.S. leadership. Through the end of last week, the Israeli government continued to resist American demands to roll back the announcement of new Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem. U.S.-China relations are going through another tense period, as Beijing defends its overvalued currency, continues its crackdown on democracy activists, and bellows about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Climate-change negotiations are moribund following their collapse at the Copenhagen conference. World-trade talks are off the international agenda altogether. And even a relatively simple arms-control treaty with Russia—the replacement for the recently expired Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty agreement—has yet to be finished despite the "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations.

Now the Obama administration is having trouble getting a NATO ally (Turkey) and a Latin American democracy (Brazil) to help stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. This shouldn't be so hard. The International Atomic Energy Agency made clear in its most recent report that Tehran still refuses to suspend its nuclear-enrichment programs as required by previous U.N. resolutions, and notes that there are substantial grounds to believe that Iran's program is intended to build a nuclear weapon. Countries like Turkey and Brazil that have a strong stake in the international system should respond when a U.N. agency issues such a report.

One part of the problem is that nearly everyone admits that the current leadership in Iran isn't likely to capitulate as a result of restrictions on shipping, insurance, and travel. Since the chances are remote that the Obama administration will initiate another war in this volatile region, Washington can only argue that sanctions are a better alternative than an Israeli military attack, and that in any case Iran must pay a price for its noncompliance.

Another part of the problem relates to perceptions of U.S. power and influence. President Obama's reversal of Bush-era policies on global warming, Guantánamo, and international law did help restore lost respect for the United States. On a trip to Brazil in November, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that the United States was discriminating against smaller countries trying to use nuclear technology for civilian purposes; Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva expressed similar sentiments during his trip to Israel last week.

China has historically opposed sanctions in most situations and has a growing dependence on Iranian oil and gas. While Russia has sounded more cooperative lately, it too has grown weary of economic sanctions as a tool of international diplomacy and says it will soon complete a nuclear-power reactor in Iran. Both Beijing and Moscow seem unwilling to offer much help to the new administration and may be testing President Obama's resolve.

This is an opportunity to demonstrate America's diplomatic strength and determination. An admired, democratically elected leader like Lula is entitled to choose his friends and pursue his nation's energy policy without interference from the United States. But Brazil aspires to a larger role in international affairs. As a result of its political dynamism, size, and economic success, it wants to join the most elite club in the world: permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council. So, if simple logic won't secure Brazil's support (Iran is breaching international rules; it should be held accountable), then the United States should make clear that it will take Brazil's position on the Iran nuclear issue into account in deciding whether to support permanent membership.

The new geopolitical order is defined by the rise in strength and independence of middle powers like Brazil, India, South Africa, and Indonesia. All say they want a rules-based international system. Fair enough. But if countries like Brazil want to play a more prominent role, then they have to shoulder the responsibility of upholding those rules. When the IAEA declares Iran is flouting those rules, responsible countries must respond and punish the rule breakers.

Good will and respect is not always enough. Sometimes even friendly countries must understand that they will pay a price for defying the United States. In all likelihood, this approach will work. Brazil will adjust its position. And the rest of the world will take notice. That might not solve the Iran conundrum. But at least it's a start.